Shakespeare’s Motley Crew

at Touchstone Theatre

Once one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, The Merchant of Venice is performed infrequently these days, though little in this fable presents difficulties except the fact of Shylock’s Jewishness: Bassanio needs money to court a young heiress, Portia, so his friend Antonio borrows a large sum for him from loan officer Shylock. Knowing the enmity between the two, Bassanio worries when Shylock stipulates in the contract that Antonio must forfeit a pound of his own flesh if the debt is not repaid in a timely fashion, but the debtor is unperturbed. Soon after this transaction, however, another of Antonio’s sidekicks, Lorenzo, elopes with Shylock’s daughter, Jessica–which disposes her ill-tempered father even more unfavorably toward Antonio and his friends. In the meantime Bassanio has won the hand of the wealthy Portia, but on the eve of their wedding word arrives that Shylock is preparing to collect on his sanguine bargain. It remains for the crafty Portia, disguised as an attorney, to rescue her husband’s faithful friend from draconian justice.

To xenophobic 16th-century English audiences, the mere fact that Shylock is a Jew would have marked him as an unsavory sort, but modern American audiences who share none of these prejudices are puzzled, if not downright offended, by the emphasis placed on this one characteristic. Some productions have attempted to make Shylock a victim of bigotry and thus more sympathetic, but it’s hard to see someone who actively desires the mutilation of another human being as anything but a villain, and villains must be villainous if heroes are to be heroic. One recent production mitigated the problem by casting so mono-ethnically that the term “Jew” seemed as much an archaic epithet as “Jacobite” or “Royalist,” a tack revealing Shylock’s crime to be one universally acknowledged–an obsession with revenge. And certain Shakespearean companies have opted simply to strike the play from their repertoire.

Shakespeare’s Motley Crew seems to have chosen to ignore the problem completely, hoping that the audience will do the same. Under the uncharacteristically primitive direction of Deya Friedman, the cast give the language meticulous enunciation, phrasing, and inflection but appear to have leached out every trace of the subtext, which might have indicated the inner workings of the characters or their importance to the story. Thus a peripheral scene in which a Moroccan prince (played operatically by Mariko Kaonohi in a clumsy bit of cross-gender casting) pays suit to Portia is given as much attention as Shylock’s revealing “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech, which Aaron H. Alpern delivers with such sincerity it never occurs to us to question his motives later.

Shylock’s adversaries are equally ambiguous: Laura Macknin’s Portia is a blank-faced Hollywood ingenue; Rob Skolits’s Antonio is bland as a newscaster. Edward Behr’s Lorenzo and Paula Korologos’s Jessica are all but invisible. Only Christopher Vasquez as Gratiano and Roz Francis as Portia’s servant Nerissa care enough about their characters to give them the semblance of a personality, making us care about them and their fates. Stephanie R. Gerckens’s Maxfield Parrish-hued set and Cole Harris’s fairy-tale Arabian Nights costumes get the job done, but their skimpiness contributes to the overall impression that we’re watching a rehearsal rather than a finished production.