MONEY STILL TRUMPS LOVE AS RACISM AND ANTISEMITISM FLOURISH IN A FRESH TAKE OF THE SHYLOCK AND THE CHRISTIAN
Theater of Others presents its 7th show of providing Shakespeare to Bay Area audiences for “pay what you can” prices, the company enlists mostly local actors in the area to mount their bard shows. This spring they're currently performing a most audacious version of The Merchant of Venice at the Kelly Cullen stage in San Francisco through April 2nd. In keeping with its motto, “21st Century Shakespeare for Our Times,” Theater of Others presents a re-envisioned production of The Merchant of Venice – a story of pride, resentment, vengeance, and a business deal gone horribly wrong. Glenn Havlan directs a cast of 16 actors with the spirit to bring one of the rarely staged plays.
Director Havlan says “Our version widely interprets the victims to be all who are seen to be “the Other.” The religionists of the play are not very good practitioners. But if we read the “Christians” and the “Jews” to represent, in a larger sense, the “oppressors” and the “oppressed,” we can open up the play to a broader 21st Century perspective”. The Theater of Others production is set in a “twisted near future” where the Jewish characters – Shylock, Tubal, and Jessica - are played by African-Americans so that they are instantly recognizable, as were red-hatted Jews in 16th Century Venice. Our production attempts to refocus on the Jew as outsider. It’s not so much Christians vs. Jews as the Oppressor vs. the Oppressed. Compared to Elizabethan England, Venice of that time was a city of laws and money was king. Venetian laws were the reason Shylock and his fellow Jews were there – they were protected by the laws and could live in relative peace as they conducted their business.”
As adapted and directed by the provocative Havlan, this “Merchant” starts off as a clever drama centered around Portia's suitor selection process. That morphs into a pulsating courtroom drama with Shylock played by the believable Federico Edwards, who tries to exact his pound of flesh from hapless Antonio (Eric Nelson), who went into debt for his pal Bassanio (Abdulrahim Harara), who stands before the disguised Portia (Gaby Schneider) who intercedes. The Merchant is a Shakespearean story that displays the sadness in a man’s heart, mysterious terrors, a hate crime and religious intolerance. The willingness of these characters to gamble with their lives.
Portia, the brilliant young woman who dresses as a man to save the Merchant’s life, bears witness to an untold passion between Antonio and Bassanio.With the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, demanding a pound of flesh from a man who is willing to have his heart torn out of his body as a gesture of love to his friend. Money still trumps love; racism and anti-Semitism flourish. Therefore, the quality of mercy is indeed strained. Portia is talking about how things ought to be, while we know that mercy is constrained everywhere we look. Moral conflicts raised by Shakespeare’s famous play, once classified as a comedy, are more recent to something like a tragedy or political edged play as staged by Havlan.
With 16 able performers, which is an impressive undertaking, the result is still a very poignant production. The opening night audience of about 50 is arranged up close to the players on the stage of the auditorium in the Kelly Cullen Community Center. Acoustics are not perfect but Eric Nelson's sound design handles the open space he designed for a smaller more black box type production. The marvelous Beau Dream, who also plays Stephano, composed music for this play and it is very effective and moves the first act from scene to scene. Havlen compacts modern day technology into this intense story as the players carry cell phones, iPads, and a laptop, which brings the scrolling opening caskets to life on a projection screen which is the important part of the plot. Taurean Feaster designed some dapper hi tech costumes keeping most of the male cast in suits and ties, and rich texture to Prince of Morocco and the Shylock. Lijesh Krishnan on point light design had to cover some of the house since actors perform down front of the stage, and the projections are eye catching.
As the wronged Jew, Edward’s performance remarkable in this play. As a careful, capable, warily emotional man who has prospered in a dark environment, he does justice to Shylock. “Others” who command this Theater of Others’ stage are the young Ian Wilcox and Krista White as the elegant Lorenzo & Jessica. The skilled Eric Nelson brings complexity to Antonio, with his smug disdain. Marc Berman commands the stage as the self-indulgent outspoken Gratiano, making you hate his racism and meets his match with Shannon Alane Harger's no nonsense Nerissa.
The infectious Heren Patel is perfect as the Prince of Morocco commanding the stage with his brief show stopping appearances. Greg Gutting, who also designed the exceptional backdrop projections, chips in a brisk interpretation of Prince of Arragon, while Tubal was played with panache by the vibrant Tracy Baxter. Her only appeal is in befriending Jessica played by Krista White, who makes her best impression in that second act, where her silence speaks volumes. Anthony Cohen as Doge of Venice, John Frediani as Launcelot, and Courtney Anne Russell as Salanio fill out the enthusiastic cast.
Director Havlan says about the ending of his version of Merchant “We have chosen a story that does not provide a satisfactory ending. Our telling of this story is as a cautionary tale, and example of the institutional normalization of injustice. It’s not the institutional normalization of injustice, It’s not realistic to think that hatred and corruption cannot prevail, that evil never wins. Conscience and righteousness will succeed more often when we are aware and prepared ”
“Merchant” is certainly a play for today with its unique mix of tragedy, race politics and surreal 21st century appeal with a touch of millennials’ jaded flair. Havlan’s direction takes chances and the audience reaps the benefits. Some of Shakespeare’s most extraordinary characters make this a MUST SEE production from a new compelling theatre company. Coming Up Next at Theater of Others is The Roaring Girl, and Moll Cutpurse by Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton. A Jacobean Comedy directed by Gaby Schneider. Opens June 16.
Theater of Others presents
The Merchant of Venice
Directed by Glenn Havlan
Must close April 2
Two Hours 30 min One intermission
PAY WHAT YOU CAN
Kelly Cullen Community Auditorium
220 Golden Gate Avenue, San Francisco
Easy Access to BART
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CAST: Tracy Baxter (Tubal), Marc Berman (Gratiano), Nick Chapman (Salarino), Anthony Cohen (Doge of Venice), Beau Dream (Stephano), Federico Edwards (Shylock), John Frediani (Launcelot), Greg Gutting (Prince of Aragon), Abdulrahim Harara (Bassanio), Shannon Alane Harger (Nerissa), Eric Nelson (Antonio), Heren Patel (Prince of Morocco), Courtney Anne Russell (Salanio), Gaby Schneider (Portia), Krista White (Jessica), Ian Wilcox (Lorenzo)
COSTUMES by Taurean Feaster MUSIC by Beau Dream GRAPHIC DESIGN by Richard Gutierrez