Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Merchant of Venice - Seattle Shakespeare Company

The Merchant of Venice
Seattle Shakespeare Company
Tickets and Information
March 12 – April 5, 2009

“The Merchant of Venice is a delicate, passionate, and ambiguous play.” These are the first words from John Langs, director of Seattle Shakespeare Company’s The Merchant of Venice currently playing in the Center House Theater in the Seattle Center and no truer words have been spoken about this play. Of all Shakespeare’s canon, The Merchant of Venice is one of his most uncomfortable and inconclusive stories. It is the sort of play the audience leaves wondering if they have seen unjustified hatred, base xenophobia, a story in which everyone gets what’s coming to them, or a testament to our own inexplicable tendency to latch on to a feeling and not leave it until we’ve seen our ends completed.

(Will Beinbrink, Troy Fischnaller and Mark Chamberlin; Photo by Ken Holmes)

John Langs’ production is no exception to the ambiguity inherent in the writing. However, the humanity and non-judgmental attitude with which Langs approaches this piece is undeniably expert and brilliant. Charles Leggett (Shylock) put it very well when he said “they’re human. That’s where you have to start.” In Seattle Shakes’ production, there is no judgment to introduce the show. There are no obvious good guys or bad guys. Everyone has faults and everyone has successes and they are each measured by each other. Certainly no character demonstrates this more than Shylock. Leggett’s performance is magnificently human and, not to say sympathetic, but certainly empathetic. Shylock’s plight is a tragic one, though balanced by his pride and avarice. Similarly, Antonio (Mark Chamberlin) demonstrates how easy it is for a man who seems such a loveable character is not always so much so. The production, marked by truly skilled performances from every member of the cast, is a testament to the guttural nature of humanity as illustrated by that great psychologist of the Renaissance.

Of course, all this makes The Merchant of Venice out to be a torturous and painful experience wrought with the pain and torment of psychological issues and greed as supreme ruler. This is not so. While the show does contain many dark moments, it is, by many authorities, considered one of Shakespeare comedies, and certainly lives up to its name. While sometimes breaking from the continuity of the rest of the production, there are several moments in which precision comedy comes fully to the forefront of the show, and other moments where quieter comedy and lighthearted moments prevail. Troy Fischnaller (Gratiano and Morocco) is a beacon of hilarity in this otherwise rather tense show as are Shawn Law as Lancelot and Brian Claudio Smith as Aragon.

The production highlights the humanity of the story yet again in the technical aspects. Jennifer Zeyl’s scenic design is fully functional and leaves no unnecessary object or piece on stage at any time leaving the story to be told by the actors and their text. Similarly, Pete Rush’s costumes give the audience a clear perspective on locale and atmosphere and Geoff Korf’s lighting artistry lends a stark yet specific element that added greatly to the mood of the story.

John Lang’s production highlights the economy of Venice and therefore of our own society—possibly a little too much, for certainly the reminders of money, not only in the text but in character’s actions and stage business, rarely let up. Themes of wealth, privilege and prejudice run through the play, and the characters navigate them sometimes successfully, mostly uncomfortably. Lang’s skilled direction, however, shows off theme, character and story with precision and without judgment, letting the audience make the final judgment as they weigh the story in their minds.

Review by Nigel Andrews and Lia Morgan

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