NY Theater Review by JK Clarke
With its latest production, The Merchant of Venice (MoV), The Shakespeare Forum has established itself as the preeminent small-scale community Shakespeare company in New York. A remarkable feat considering it is only their fourth production, having launched in 2012. After tackling the less (historically) popular Love’s Labour’s Lost last summer, the Forum, and returning directors Andrew Borthwick-Leslie and Sybille Bruun are now working with the more popular, yet controversial, Merchant of Venice. The play has been called out (and passed over) in recent years because of its virulent anti-semitism. The racism is certainly there, but assailing, or passing on the play because of that is a mistake that misses the point and is akin to banning Huckleberry Finn for its use of the “N word.” While the slanders are vile (and doubtless the subject of innumerable, righteous Lit 101 term papers), this excellent play deserves a worthy examination and presentation. And Shakespeare Forum has done so for us.
This staging focuses quite touchingly on love: businessman Antonio’s love for his striving friend Bassanio is so great that he risks a costly bond with a notorious usurer; Bassanio loves Portia so intensely that he puts his dear friend Antonio at enormous peril; Jessica abandons her faith and risks her father Shylock’s wrath and disinheritance for the love of Lorenzo; and so on. The story is not as straightforward as most of Shakespeare’s “comedies,” nor is it as silly; rather it is complex, intricate and often rather dark. After notoriously anti-semitic Antonio (a strong and even Dominic Comperatore) borrows money on a “pound of flesh” bond from the hated Jewish merchant, Shylock (dynamically and touchingly played by Joseph Menino), on what he believes to be a sure venture, his world comes crashing down when his ships fail to come in. Simultaneous with Antonio’s forfeiture, Shylock’s daughter Jessica has eloped in the middle of the night with a Christian, and robbed him in the process. Enraged, Shylock opts to demand his outrageous debt, much to the shock of everyone in town, but he has had enough of the prejudice: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?!”
Meanwhile Bassiano (a charming Bill Coyne) for whom Antonio has taken the loan so that he may woo the wealthy heiress Portia (Hannah Rose Goalstone), has, in fact, happily won Portia’s hand. But his world comes crashing down when he hears of Antonio’s impending doom. Touched by his anguish, Portia sends Bassiano back to Venice with money to pay the bond several times over. Meanwhile, she disguises herself as a man, consults with an attorney, and hastens to ensure the court proceedings go her way, even if it necessitates some kind of subterfuge. Her triumph comes in the form of a twist hinged on legal interpretation that would make Perry Mason proud. As a result, Shylock is crushed, left almost destitute and (this is the most egregious of the bigotry) forced to convert to Christianity
Regardless of the social shortcomings, the language and the story are captivating, made all the more so by the Forum’s production. The early 20th Century costumes (Brittany Merola) are socially and culturally significant but not overly done or exaggerated. Jessica’s and Shylock’s more austere clothing is elegant and understated. And the court gowns of Portia and her lady-in-waiting, Nerissa (Sarah Hankins) are beautiful garments that appropriately reflect their class difference.
The standout performance, however, comes from Ms. Goalstone in her role as Portia. Having shined as The Princess in Love’s Labour’s Lost, she emerges even further here. She absolutely commands every scene she’s in (and creates anticipation even in scenes from which she’s absent) with almost movie-star charisma and tight control of the material. This MoV revolves around Portia and the strength with which she wields her financial and political power and Ms. Goalstone does so magnificently. One looks forward to her future roles, particularly those with the Forum.
It is a core tenet Shakespeare Forum’s mission to inspire and train/educate actors both through workshops and school visits. To that end, they have created, as one would say in baseball, a farm team from which to cherry pick aspiring actors; one of whom is Elektra Birchall, a young public school student who plays the role (usually interchanged with her brother Ivan, who was out sick on this particular night) of several different Pages and Messengers. The quantity of her stage time, and the sheer volume of lines she had, and performed so very, very well, is beyond admirable. Her performance alone proved the immeasurable worth of the Forum’s education programs. Bravo.
It is a pity the play is not running longer. It is a production not to be missed, and word-of-mouth should certainly draw larger and larger audiences, but it ends soon. Once again, this organization has captured the essence and joy of both community theater and Shakespeare itself. Go see it.
The Merchant of Venice. Through June 14 at The Gym at Judson Memorial Church (243 Thompson St at Washington Square South). www.theshakespeareforum.org
*Photos: Allison Stock