Playwright: William Shakespeare
At: Chicago Shakespeare Th., Navy Pier
Phone: ( 312 ) 595-5600; $48-$65
Runs through: Nov. 12
How does one criticize the bard? It's like criticizing God. But I find that Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is one of his most problematic plays and not just for the reason one might expect. Shakespeare's portrait of Jewish money lender Shylock and his demand for a literal pound of flesh as payment for a defaulted loan, and of young Portia, who seeks to find the perfect suitor, has long been the subject of debate among critics, scholars, audiences, and directors.
The first problem I have with this play is that it IS anti-Semitic. In her notes, director Barbara Gaines argues that the play is not; that it's a play that's anti-savagery. She's filtering Shakespeare's work through modern sensibilities. I don't necessarily blame Shakespeare for creating one of the least endearing Jewish characters in English literature, replete with many of the hateful stereotypes that come with painting such a portrait. Like the anti-feminist Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice was written in a time when such prejudices were probably more acceptable and even welcome than they are today, no matter how hateful or misguided these depictions were.
Gaines has crafted a unique production that serves to shift away the responsibility of staging a show with blatant anti-Semitic overtones. Gaines does The Merchant of Venice on a nearly bare stage, in modern dress, and as a dress rehearsal. Transitional scenes show the actors walking along busy urban streets, throwing out garbage, having a drink. This stripped-down universe works because it allows the force of Shakespeare's language and his storytelling to come to the fore, unfettered and uncluttered. It doesn't always work because it's inconsistent and Gaines fails to take the conceit all the way; I didn't really realize what she was up to until after the performance.
The other reason I think The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare's lesser efforts is the fact that it's a two-pronged play, albeit with intertwined prongs. The second, non-Shylock prong has to do with some comic business about the romantic suitors' loss of their beloved's rings and how that all turns out. It's cute and clever, and not up to Shakespeare's best comedic writing. Coming near the end of the play, this subplot only weakens the impact of what came before. Gaines' decision to sort of 'fade out' at the production's end makes this show distinctly anti-climactic.
But there are some wonderful things about this Merchant that make it worth seeing, in spite of its past and present flaws: one is the performance of Chicago theater legend Mike Nussbaum who, at age 81, lends incredible physical vitality, menace, and creativity to his portrayal of Shylock. Another is the moody, dramatic lighting by designer Robert Weirzel. In a stripped-down show such as this one, it's great to have at least some visual panache, and Weirzel provides it.
Now I'm off to critique God and his hand in the creation of George Bush.