‘Merchant of Venice’ at CustomMade offers fresh insights in an excellent production

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: 4/5 Stars » Highly Recommended)

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

The Merchant of Venice is a problem play. The problem, of course, being primarily the monstrous character of Shylock the Jew. It is impossible to get around the play’s antisemitism. Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, of course humanizes Shylock. How could he not? But he begins with a caricature, a grotesque, and that is the main impression created, in spite of the memorably moving  speech beginning, “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes?” (For an excellent discussion of the problem of Shylock, you might read this. A little internet research will turn up a lot more.)

When Marin Shakespeare Company produced the play a few years ago, they hosted a symposium at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael and nearly 200 people attended. Many were angry, furious, that the play was being produced. The fact is, it has sparked loathing among Jewish readers (and celebration among antisemites) for centuries. On the other hand, Shylock’s humanity has also invited Jewish identification with both his suffering and his rage.

Man, that Shakespeare cat could write like a sonofabitch.

Besides the issue of antisemitism, Shylock creates another problem for any company attempting this complex play: although the play is about The Merchant of Venice — Antonio — Shylock’s character is so huge and problematical that he almost always eclipses everything else in the production.

So, any thoughtful director who takes on Merchant must have some means of addressing these issues. Mr. Stuart Bousel (founder of the deservedly highly respected company, No Nude Men) is such a thoughtful director, and his approach is full of fresh insight and engaging theatricality.

In his program notes, Mr. Bousel describes the play as being “about modern society…defined by diversity of thought…and the inherent pressure on the individual[s]…[who] exist in a constant social turmoil defined by selfishness and generosity, forgiveness and revenge.”

(l to r) Catz Forsman as Shylock, Dashiell Hillman as Bassanio and Ryan Hayes as Antonio in CustomMade Theatre’s production of The Merchant of Venice. Photo credit: Jay Yamada.

In keeping with this modern conception, this Merchant is set in a contemporary milieu among fashionable people, living in a maelstrom of social interaction and pressures. They dress sharply, defining themselves by class and behavior. They scurry about tied to their cell phones (like so many of us), making constant social adjustments, getting along. In a marvelous prologue, presented without dialogue, we watch this community interact on the plaza and note Shylock’s presence as an obvious outsider. We feel the subtle social pressure that both squeezes him out and impels the passersby to make a display of their contempt. When Antonio, an evident outsider himself, pauses to flamboyantly spit upon Shylock, we feel the pain in both men.  It is a wonder to experience the clarity with which Bousel communicates these ideas. Here is real expertise in direction, much to be admired.

When Antonio speaks his opening line, “In sooth I know not why I am so sad….” he speaks for all confusedly caught up in the pressures of social conformity and the loss of identity, and even decency, that this can cause. When he greets the younger, handsome, Bassanio we see his evident homosexual love and can recognize the outsider feelings which are driving his behavior. He is an essentially decent man, trying to navigate complex feelings and social pressures. Although many productions of Merchant, especially in recent years, have recognized the homosexual feelings that motivate Antonio, this is the first time I have seen this theme explored and developed with such care and sensitivity. By making explicit Antonio’s outsider status (although Shylock is unware of it), the imbalance of most productions is greatly corrected, and the characters of Antonio, Bassanio, and the rest of the Venetians spring sharply into focus, so that Shylock is not so far out of proportion to the rest.

By taking this tack, Bousel restores the centrality of the story of Antonio and Bassanio, allowing both characters to grow and change and deepen (especially Bassanio, beautifully and subtly played by Dashiell Hillman).

Catz Forsman’s Shylock is as Shakespeare wrote him: an unrepentant, repulsive villain. If this characterization is slighter in impact than other Shylocks, it is appropriate to this production, and convincingly played. Megan Briggs is a sufficiently eloquent Portia. Gabriel A. Ross, as the clown Launcelot Gobbo, provides expert comic relief. Among the other roles, Matt Gunnison’s chillingly clueless party boy Gratiano is particularly effective.

As a gay man and a Jew, I was very moved by this production. Thank you, Mr. Bousel.

This is a memorable Merchant of Venice, original, exciting and highly recommended. Merchant of Venice continues through Sunday, August 5th. Performances are selling out, so don’t delay. For further information, click here.

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“The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare, produced by CustomMade Theatre Company. Director: Stuart Bousel. Scenic Design: Sarah Phykitt. Costume Design: Tim Malko. Light Design: Maxx Kurzunski. Sound Design: Ryan Lee Short.

Lorenzo: Brian Martin. Jessica: Jim Saunders. Antonio: Ryan Hayes. Salanio: Claire Rice. Salerino: Tonya Narvaez. Bassanio: Dashiell Hillman. Gratiano: Matt Gunnison. Portia: Megan Briggs. Nerissa: Molly Holcomb. Shylock: Catz Forsman. Prince of Morocco: Perry Aliado. Launcelot Gobbo: Gabriel A. Ross. Salerio: Stefin Collins. Prince of Arragon: Stefin Collins. Zia: Jean Forsman. Tubal: Perry Aliado. Duke of Venice: Jean Forsman.

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