‘Merchant of Venice’ a traditional production with a few twists

By Rachelle Hughes
Iron County Today

My theatre partner curiously asked me why “Merchant of Venice” is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays when we left Utah Shakespeare’s production of Merchant of Venice this year.

I admit it is puzzling why this story continues to be one of my favorites. Perhaps it is because it is a truly complicated play. While it may fall under the umbrella of Shakespeare’s comedies since it does not end with death, it is not funny, although there are moments that elicit laughter, especially when the scoundrel Gratiano (Josh Innerst) takes the stage.

It is not a tragedy, although there are moments that tear at the heart and the soul and become increasingly dark and twisted. It has elements of love and romance, but they are not any more powerful of a storyline than the storylines of friendship or prejudice. In the end, it is a story that is raw — a tragicomedy. No character is portrayed as completely good or completely bad. They are flawed, every one. The characters are portrayed in a time and a place when anti-semitism was a very real aspect of society.

I really appreciate that director Melinda Pfundstein chose to keep this production true to the time period. While some of Shakespeare’s plays can easily be transposed to other time periods Merchant of Venice feels more authentic in the mid Italian Renaissance era. However, Pfundstein was able to stretch this plays traditional roles in a different direction by taking a page from the bard’s casting philosophy. While the bard often had males play female roles, many of the male roles in this production of Merchant of Venice were played by females. A bold stroke, giving women an opportunity to play iconic Shakespeare characters like Antonio and Shylock and other roles creating a more gender balanced cast.

Lisa Wolpe was a convincing Shylock who epitomized Antonio’s description of a Shylock that was “a goodly apple rotten at the heart.” Leslie Brott has played almost every possible type of role at the Utah Shakespeare Festival and it was an interesting study to see her as the rich merchant Antonio who is loyal and good to his friend Bassanio, prejudiced of the Jews and Shylock and true to his word to the end.

Portia the heiress played by Tarah Flanagan and her lady in waiting Nerissa played by Betsy Mugavero bring wit, intelligence and romance to the play as Portia wins the hand of her favorite suitor Bassanio and Nerissa wins Gratiano. They then go on to save Antonio’s life in a court of law as they disguise themselves as two men of law who save him from having a pound of his flesh taken by Shylock.

As usual, I thoroughly enjoyed this version of Merchant of Venice with its traditional directing with a twist. It made me think, as this play always does. At times I laughed, I was sad, I rejoiced, I hurt, I was angry. It is a play full of emotions for me. Not every play has to be simple to figure out to be a favorite, or to quote another line from this play “all that glisters is not gold.”   With only a few more opportunities to see this play this season, perhaps this is the play to round out a season of Shakespeare. Merchant of Venice runs through Sept. 7 in the Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre. For ticket information visit bard.org or call 1-800-PLAYTIX.

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