The Cardinal Stage Company presents Shakespeare’s comedy The Merchant of Venice in a stylish and attractive production set in the 1920s. Artistic director Randy White’s staging features women playing all of the roles.
The Merchant of Venice has been called the first play of Shakespeare’s maturity. Critics hear the magical poetry of the earlier works now turned to better serve the plot and the development of the characters. This play has two threads, a love story connected to a financial story. There’s Bassanio’s courtship of Portia and the bargain that his friend the merchant Antonio has struck with Shylock to fund the wooing.
Caitlan Taylor was a charmer as the slightly feckless wooer Bassanio. Amira Sabbagh was his supportive friend Antonio. Liz Pazik made a thoughtfully stolid figure as the much abused money lender Shylock.
Nicole Bruce who’s brought laughter to IU’s Shakespeare’s porter in Macbeth and his Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream didn’t disappoint. As Lancelot Gobbo, Bruce whipped the audience in a call and response over the switch employment from Shylock to Portia.
The wooing of Portia features an amusing choosing of chests. Eliza Stoughton as the feisty mock Spaniard Aragon was disappointed with gold. Aragon was more than followed by Yadira Correa as Morocco, a fanciful figure complete with a Shriner’s topper. Morocco picked Silver and was also dismissed. It was left to Bassanio to reason that the contents might be more significant than the outside and to pick the correct lead chest to win Portia.
Throughout Leslie Ann Handleman did a nice job as the sometimes hopeful, sometimes bemused Portia however fans of marriage equality will wince at her quick acquiescence to Bassanio. Courtney Reid Harris as her friend Nerissa was a bit of a sparkplug and in character and costume firmly set the play in the flapper days of the 20s.
Meanwhile Eliza Stoughton has left the moustache of Arragon behind to become Lorenzo and woo Shylock’s daughter Jessica, Caroline Huerta. With a certain amount of glee Jessica rebelliously robs the house and departs for Lorenzo and Christianity. Shylock laments the loss of his daughter and his ducats, but the ducats seem slightly the more important.
Finally, the wooings complete, the loan to Shylock has come due and Antonio’s ships have not come in. He’s broke and despite the late arrival of support from friends, he’s in forfeiture and liable for that pound of flesh that Shylock so casually settled on as the bond. Whatever sympathy we may have for the money lender, he’s person who’s been at least toying with murder.
Mary Carol Reardon as the presiding Duke of Venice reluctantly supports Shylock. The clever Portia, now disguised as lawyer does a nice job with the “Quality of Mercy Speech” but it doesn’t dissuade the money lender. Shylock’s hand with the knife wavers, but he’s ready to cut into a man who’s been his tormenting rival. Things look bad for Antonia and it’s only Portia’s overnight mastery of the details of the law that turns things around.
Shylock is humiliated, humbled and forced to follow his errant daughter Jessica into Christianity. Despite the general sympathy for his downfall, the moment when his skull cap is taken and dropped to the ground is a movingly poignant one.
Here’s a foot note. The play is set in Italy in the 1920s. By the forties when the Germans took over, Shylock might be dead. However, Jessica might be alive and her Christianization wouldn’t have saved her. She’d have been sent to the camps.
The Cardinal production of The Merchant of Venice is very gracefully done with strong acting, very good attention to the dialog and a lively flow of the action with actors occasionally speaking directly to the audience. The lovely set and its appurtenances are by C. David Higgins. Handsome tuxedo style costumes for the male characters and attractive dresses for the three women playing women are by Ellen MacKay. Atmospheric lighting is by Mickie Marie and a very active sound design is by Mike Price.
I haven’t said anything about the casting of women in all the roles because, I seldom noticed it, a bit of a surprise for me.
The Cardinal Stage Company’s production of The Merchant of Venice at the Ivy Tech Waldron Auditorium plays October 29 through November 13, 2016
At the theatre for you, I’m George Walker.