by JK Clarke
It seems in recent years that even the most progressive theater companies are reluctant to produce what have come to be called Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice—the first notable for its outrageous misogyny, the second for vile anti-semitism—have become off-limits to companies wary of offending audiences. The Public Theater’s award-winning artistic director Oscar Eustis proclaimed his hesitancy and discomfort with both and the resulting all-female production of Shrew this summer was so contorted and apologetic that the play’s (now) ironic and outsizedly absurdist humor was utterly lost on audience and critics alike. But some companies have faith in their viewers’ ability to transcend the archaic circumstances and offensive messages and enjoy the nuance and poetry of these two otherwise outstanding plays. Case in point is The Secret Theatre’s terrific new production of The Merchant of Venice, now playing through this Sunday (September 18) in Long Island City.
Not only does the company, with the top notch direction of Alberto Bonilla have the temerity to produce Merchant, but they set it during World War II. A play about Antonio (suave, composed Michael Vincent Carrera), a wealthy merchant who borrows, against his better judgement, a large sum of money from the usurer Shylock (Richard Mazda, also the company’s Executive Director), whose name has become pejoratively synonymous with the practice. When his ships are reported lost at sea, the bond he agreed to in a heated moment—a pound of his flesh—is forfeited. Shylock—whom Antonio brutally denigrated as he borrowed the money—makes it known intends to collect, which would surely result in Antonio’s death.
But while the play is known for its repugnant anti-Semitism, displayed again and again in various characters’ dialog, it isn’t it just a one-sided, bald-faced display of bigotry and hate. The catch is in Shylock’s (admittedly understandable) rage. At one point, invited to dinner, he is revolted by the thought of the smell of pork in the household: “I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you . . . but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.” And while making the deal with Antonio, he utters in an aside, “I hate him for he is a Christian . . . If I catch him once upon the hip, I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.” One has to wonder if, when Antonio’s ships are lost at sea, whether Shylock’s vindictiveness wouldn’t have been so great if his daughter Jessica (Isabella Curti) hadn’t just eloped with a Christian, stealing his money.
Meanwhile, the B-story follows wealthy heiress Portia (smartly played by Joy Donze), who is constrained by her father’s will that says she must marry the suitor who passes a special test. Antonio’s best, dearest friend, Bassanio (strong, macho and likeable Zachary Clark)—for whom Antonio has taken the loan—is the suitor who ultimately succeeds. And though Portia gives him the money to bail out Antonio, enraged Shylock will have none of it. Portia and her lady-in-waiting, Nerissa (charming Grace Merriman) disguise themselves as a judge and clerk and intervene in Antonio’s trial, finding a loophole to save his life and forever disgrace and ruin Shylock, taking his estate and distributing it to both the state and the daughter he has disowned.
On the whole The Secret Theatre has produced a very compelling Merchant of Venice. Anna Winter’s fabulous World War II era costumes and Mike Lee’s big band sound design make for an enjoyable production on their own. But outstanding casting and acting from the principal characters (so good that the contrast with the rest of the actors proves problematic at times) take the play to an entirely different level. Richard Mazda, with his distinctive accent that hearkens a character actor in an English gangster movie, is perhaps one of the best Shylocks (of many) I have ever seen. In a tattered overcoat with its ominous outline stitching of a Yellow Star of David (employed by the Nazis to identify Jews), and the worn lines of his face, he presents a pragmatic, though deeply emotionally wounded Jewish businessman whose burgeoning rage is somewhat understandable. Mazda has ensured that there be no overcompensation despite the overt racism of the play. His character is both sympathetic and, at times, unsympathetic. As he should be. That’s what makes the play, as written, interesting. And, if it weren’t for Mazda’s remarkable performance, Grace Merriman’s magnificent Nerissa would be said to have stolen the show. Equal parts flirtatious and deliciously adorable, she’s a boogie-woogie girl straight out of an Andrews Sisters movie. She’s a perfect comic foil to Joy Donze’s equally charming Portia. Her eye-rolls, winks and smirks add layers to both characters, making the women the real, unintentioned centerpieces of the play. Though I’d seen neither Mazda nor Merriman on stage prior, I cannot wait to see them again. The play’s short run ends this weekend. Don’t miss it.
The Merchant of Venice. Through Sunday, September 18 at The Secret Theatre (44-02 23rd Street, Long Island City; just one subway stop from Manhattan, and a five minute Courthouse Square E, M, G and 7 train stop). www.secrettheatre.com
Photos: Reiko Yanagi