The Merchant of Venice (July 20-August 6, 2006)

Olympia hosts marvelous ‘Merchant’

Originally published in The Tacoma News Tribune

“The Merchant of Venice” is one of the most controversial of Shakespeare’s plays due to its virulent anti-Semitism. Shylock is an embodiment of the most vicious of Jewish stereotypes and a man out for Christian blood – or, at least, the blood of one particular Christian.

It’s hard to take racial stereotypes played for comic effect. But Shylock and Antonio are complex characters, and Shakespeare makes Shylock seem more human by showing that his hatred for Christians comes from mistreatment at their hands. Audiences cannot help sympathizing with him when he utters the famous lines:

“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed?”

This production is updated with early 1960s clothing. Other than the costumes, however, nothing has been updated. Director Dennis Rolly said the main reason for the modern-day costuming was to save costs. In Acts 1 and 2, I found it a little disconcerting to watch men in gray suits with thin neckties and women in dresses that might have been worn by Jackie Kennedy or Twiggy speaking in iambic pentameter. But once I grew accustomed to the clothing, it didn’t matter, and the evolving wardrobes of Portia (Ingrid Pharris), Nerissa (Kimberly Nickel) and Lancelot (Christopher Cantrell) added greatly to the comic appeal.

When Portia and Nerissa first appear on stage, they are lounging on a patio in frumpy housedresses. Nerissa has curlers in her hair and cotton balls stuffed between her toes. Lancelot first appears as a garbage man wearing gray coveralls and a baseball hat. Later, he shows up as a poolside lizard in a gaudy Hawaiian shirt and still later as a cowboy with a red bandanna riding a child’s hobby horse. (Cantrell also appears as Shylock’s shifty friend Tubal, who is dressed up as a stereotypical gangster.)

Shifting easily from ludicrous comedy to romantic love story to high drama, this is a play that allows actors to emote to their fullest potential. The director cast actors who are up to the challenge and gave them free range. Rolly is a veteran actor, but this is only his second time as a director.

Tim Hoban plays the kind merchant, Antonio, with sympathy and much sadness. His character is one of the few that is not played with comic exaggeration.

Brian Jansen is rather slow to get into the role of Bassanio. Early on, he has to stand around a lot while other actors take center stage, but once he hooks up with the love of his life, Portia, he becomes amazingly animated. He has a great laugh.

Pharris, as Portia, is also slow to ease into her role. When she first appears, she is upstaged by her maid, Nerissa. But she blossoms in love for Bassanio, and she is great when she dresses as a man and appears in court as a lawyer (yes, this is yet another case of cross-dressing Shakespearean characters).

Other actors who stand out in supporting roles are Dennis Worrell as Gratiano and Tim Samland as the Prince of Arragon. But the real stars are Russ Holm as Shylock and Cantrell as Lancelot Gabbo. Holm plays Shylock with great passion. There is nothing clownish about his portrayal. Cantrell is nothing but clownish. He winks and laughs and grimaces and lumbers across the stage with great broad gestures.

The theater was two-thirds empty on opening night, which was a shame. Those who did attend saw an outstanding performance by some of the best actors in the South Sound region.