For the final production of the season, Parson’s Nose Theater brings us one of Shakespeare’s more controversial and challenging plays to perform in our modern era, The Merchant of Venice. Its themes of religious intolerance, “othering”, prejudice, greed and, as always, love, are elucidated here with a decidedly classic, Elizabethan production that is both thought provoking and undeniably funny. For despite its quite serious subject matter, it is a comedy, and the PNT company of actors are always up to that task.
The Lance Davis adaptation gives us a slightly pared down version of the story of Venetian shipping merchant, Antonio, who takes a loan on behalf of Bassanio, from Jewish money lender, Shylock, in exchange for a bond demanding Antonio’s “pound of flesh”. The proceedings begin in classic Venetian style with masked carnival dancing in Michael Mullen’s sumptuous costumes, which is abruptly interrupted when two Jewish men are attacked. This moment sets the tone for the social atmosphere of extreme prejudice of the time and hints that the gaiety may only be for some in this world we have entered. We feel this tension throughout the Gideon Y. Schein directed production which feels all too familiar given the current state of world affairs.
Barry Gordon gives a moving and powerful performance as Shylock, who suffers abuse at the hands of Christians and in this story, Antonio and the courts. Gordon’s machinations during the trial scene have you on the edge of your seat as you watch fortunes turn again and again. But his anger and bitterness allows us to empathize with those who disagree with him, especially his daughter Jessica, played by the winsome Heather Taylor, when she plans her escape with a Christian, the dashing Michael Calacino as Lorenzo.
Cecily Glouchevitch plays the rich and beautiful Portia with strength and longing which pairs up nicely with her feisty lady-in-waiting, Nerissa, played delightfully by Mary Chalon, both having great fun when they disguise themselves as men in a ruse to help and then taunt their respective beaus. There is good fun to be had in the suitor scene when three princes must choose between three caskets to win Portia’s hand. The charming Louis Baker, last seen at PNT in a powerful performance as Jim in Mark Twain and Friends, has a ball, dressed to the nines as Prince of Morocco. Lance Davis is hilarious as Prince of Aragon and gives an exuberant, sprightly portrayal of Shylock’s quick-witted servant, Launcelot Gobbo.
Alex Portenko is charismatic and earnest as Bassanio, who seeks Portia’s hand using Antonio’s borrowed money. James Calvert makes an engaging, rough around the edges Gratiano, loyal pal of Bassanio. Alan Brooks is a distinguished Duke of Venice, giving the proceedings the gravitas it needs while Tavis Baker makes a compelling Solerio, friend to Antonio and Bassanio, and pulls off his elegant costume complete with Elizabethan ruff with panache!
The trial scene makes us as uncomfortable as we should be given the devices that turn Shylock into a vengeful villain as a very effective John Rafter Lee as Antonio, begs for mercy. That discomfort eventually shifts to pity and pathos as we come to understand that all those who do not conform to the Christianity of the day are banished and forever relegated to be outcasts.
The evening ends as it began, with a bit of jolly teasing and various love entanglements but turns solemn as Jessica hears and sings a Jewish song of forgiveness, leaving us all with much to ponder.
The Merchant of Venice at Parson’s Nose Theater runs through June 2, 2019. Set Design by Jen Orsini and choreography by Mia Hjelte. As always don’t miss the Pat Bell homemade treats and wine at the bar before, during intermission and after the show. With Parson’s Nose, it’s always a party!
Tickets for The Merchant of Venice range from $20 to $35 and are available online at www.parsonsnose.org or by calling the Box Office at (626) 403-7667.