Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is a complex play. It's both an emotionally charged social drama and a romance, balancing Shylock's bitter rage against Bassanio's lovesick joy. Add the religious intolerance—Christian versus Jew—that's so troubling to modern audiences, and it's easy to see why the work isn't performed as often as Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. Indeed, this is the first production of Merchant that the American Globe Theater has mounted, after 17 seasons of presenting Shakespeare and other classics. In the show's program notes, director John Basil takes a decisive stand with his particular interpretation. While racism and anti-Semitism existed in Elizabethan times, this production suggests that Shylock is a negative figure because he's greedy and vengeful, not because Shakespeare wanted to justify a 16th-century stereotype.
Neither Antonio—the merchant of the play's title—nor Shylock is an innocent victim: each freely admits his persecution of the other. Shylock giggles gleefully when he suggests that the price for failing to repay a loan is a pound of Antonio's flesh. Meanwhile, Antonio's kinsmen are downright vicious in their verbal attacks on Shylock.
But when, at the play's end, Shylock does not accept payment in double for his loan and insists on Antonio's death, he becomes a villain, more so than at any other point in the play. The anti-Semitism of the text is still shocking to hear, but this production doesn't turn it into a major "issue." It's simply a plot detail, treated with an appropriate amount of gravity.
What is apparent from the tactful handling of this controversial play is the great affection the company has for Shakespeare. They approach the material with a technique that involves incorporating "the playwright's idiosyncratic use of punctuation, syntax, capitalization, etc." By doing a close reading of the text, the performers attempt to gather information about how Shakespeare may have intended a line to be delivered (the Bard didn't write the kind of detailed stage directions commonly found in modern plays).
The result is a highly physical, strongly emotional, easy-to-grasp performance that remains true to the play's language and setting. It seemed as if every performer understood every line he or she was saying, and exactly why it was being said—a rare occurrence in many contemporary productions of Shakespeare.
The principal actors were very fine: all seemed at ease with their characters both physically and emotionally. The story's key plot lines—Shylock and the merchant, Portia and her caskets—were deftly handled. But the best indication of Basil's respect for Shakespearean drama came during a scene near the play's conclusion. Featuring Lorenzo (Jon Hoche) and Jessica (Sarah Price), the short garden scene does little to advance the plot and involves only supporting characters. A lesser team would have rushed through it (or would have cut it from the show altogether), or would have cast less-experienced actors in these secondary roles. Instead, making full use of the entire stage, the actors and director took the time to joyfully explore the language and express the beauty of this flirtatious love scene.
Still, the success of the play's smaller moments, like this one (or any time the hilarious Mat Sanders was onstage as Launcelot Gobbo), in no way minimized the wonderful work of David Dean Hastings as Bassanio and Richard Fey as Antonio. The two actors brought out the subtleties in their characters by showing their relationship with each other as fraternal and affectionate. Elizabeth Keefe was a dignified and clever Portia who became a believable young male lawyer by not overselling the performance. Rainard Rachele's Shylock was both unlikable and pitiable: he gave the audience insight into a complex, unhappy man.
If this production was able to emphasize only one area of design, a good choice was the focus on costuming. Colorful and well crafted, the costumes lent a richness and depth to the simple, functional set and lighting. Given the modest budgets available to small companies, costume designer Shima Ushiba made the most of simple materials.
Nestled in a third-floor theater on West 46th Street, the American Globe Theater has been quietly producing classic plays for nearly two decades. Its version of The Merchant of Venice is the best production of Shakespeare I've seen Off-Off-Broadway. If all of its shows, whether Shakespeare or not, are of the same quality, this company deserves to keep producing for many decades to come.