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A CurtainUp Review

The Merchant of Venice
By Carolyn Balducci

If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility?
If a Christian wrong a Jew,
what should his sufferance be
by Christian example?
Why, revenge.
The villainy you teach me
I will execute;
and it shall go hard
but I will better the instruction. -

---Shylock, Act III, scene i
Celeste Ciulla as Portia disguised as Balthasar; Dominic Cuskern as Shylock
We study The Merchant of Venice in school. We memorize Portia's speech "The quality of Mercy is not strained, it dropeth as the gentle rain from heaven" -- and discover our first feminist role model. We discuss Shylock's famous lines "Hath not a Jew eyes?" and learn about equal rights and social injustice. We read Lorenzo's lines "The moon shines bright: in such a night as this/When the sweet wind did gently kiss the tress/And they did make no noise. . ." and pray someone someday somewhere will talk to us like that.

The problem is, we only THINK we know The Merchant of Venice. Then we see it performed by the Pearl Theatre Company and it becomes astonishing, revolutionary and deeply moving.

Set in Venice and a villa in the fictitious Belmont, the play begins with Bassanio (Scott Whithurst) asking his friend Antonio (Dan Daily) to loan him three thousand ducats so he can court Portia (Celeste Ciulla) in the style to which he wants to become accustomed. There is a risk of rejection, but, if Portia marries him, her wealth will cover his debts. Since Antonio has invested every last ducat in his cargo ships, still at sea, all he can do for his good buddy is co-sign a loan. Bassanio gets the loan from Shylock who, not being Christian, is allowed to charge interest. Though he bears no personal grudge against Bassanio, Shylock hates Antonio, an anti-semitic bigot, so he asks only that should the loan default, the late-payment fee be a pound of flesh from Antonio's body. Confidant that his ships will arrive soon, Antonio agrees. Later, when Shylock's daughter Jessica (Eunice Wong) elopes with Antonio's friend Lorenzo (Sean McNall), Shylock blames Antonio. What might have started out as a joke, turns into lawsuit with deadly ramifications.

On his deathbed, Portia's filthy rich father devised a contest to discourage fortune-hunters from preying on his daughter. Making Portia the prize, suitors must chose among three caskets (strongboxes). Portia puts up with a steady stream of suitors even though she is in love with Bassanio. Since he is in love with her and her money it is a good thing he picks the right casket ("Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath."). His friend, Gratiano (Christopher Moore) is in love with Portia's companion, Nerissa (Rachel Botcham) and so another marriage will be celebrated.

Antonio's ships seem to have been lost at sea. The deadline for repayment passes. Though Portia gives Bassanio more than enough funds to cover the debt, Shylock forecloses. The Duke of Venice (Edward Seamon) urges Shylock to let Bassanio settle the debt with interest but Shylock persuades him that this would set a dangerous legal precedent. Disguised as a lawyer, Portia urges Shylock to be merciful, then, concedes he is entitled to a pound of Antonio's flesh, stipulating he can not take an iota more or less, nor shed blood. Portia charges Shylock with homicidal intent. To avoid harsher punishments, Shylock must convert to Christianity, give half his assets to the Republic and the rest to Jessica.

Portia and Nerissa race back to Belmont, arriving ahead of Bassanio, Antonio and their friends. Nerissa and Portia berate their husbands for paying the young "lawyers" with their wedding rings until Portia produces a letter explaining how they impersonated lawyers and saved Antonio. All ends happily for the three young couples.

In this extraordinary play, which is, after all, about money, there are a lot of numbers: three romantic couples, three pairs of fathers and daughters; a sextuplet of male friends -- Salanio, (Jason Ma) Stephano, (Patric Toon), Salerio (Cornell Womack); a pair of women; a pair of Jews (Cuskern as Shylock and Seamon as Jubal) and a pair of clowns, Lancelot (Andy Prosky) and Old Gobbo (Edward Seamon). ("Gobbo" means hunchback in Italian.) Throughout the play, Shakespeare keeps several planets in orbit: greed, justice, loyalty plus filial, romantic, platonic love. While all this is going on, the religious hatred between Antonio and Shylock remains at the center like some vast gravitational force. On my way to the Pearl Theatre, in fact, I overheard someone questioning the wisdom of performing this particular play at this particular time in this particular city where it could be construed as anti-Semitic. (This is not a new "PC" sentiment: NY Yiddish theater only introduced the play into the repertory -- with modifications -- in 1901.)

Shylock is certainly one of Shakespeare's most difficult roles. Part victim, part villain, he's neither passive nor without motive. As a follower of the Old Testament, he is a stickler for the Law, but followers of the New Testament, while advocating forgiveness and mercy, are money grubbing hypocrites. While Shylock follows the precepts of his religion, his Christian enemies behave in un-Christlike ways. Clearly, Shylock is the morally superior character. Then why do some feel that Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic? Dominic Cuskern, who portrays Shylock in this production with stupendous penetration, speculates that Shakespeare used a stereotype to get his Elizabethan audience to recognize the character right away before forcing the audience to sympathize with him. Cuskern's Shylock is so vivid, that when he bursts forth with "Hath not a Jew. . ." he externalizes something extraordinary - not an actor acting but a restrained man suddenly snapping, losing his self-control in an outraged response to bigotry.

When Merchant of Venice was first performed in 1596 or 1597, the loyalty of Anglo-Catholics and the question of Queen Elizabeth's successor were dangerous issues. At that time, so few Jews lived in England - mostly artists, performers and physicians. Nevertheless, stereotypes of Jewish moneylenders prevailed. Shakespeare, as court entertainer, was close to one family of Venetian Jews, the Bassanos, musicians and instrument makers whose grandparents were brought to England from Venice by Henry VIII. Shakespeare fell in love with Emilia Bassano (hence, "Bassanio") the "dark lady" of his sonnets. Consummating this love was risky business for she was the mistress of his patron, the Lord Chamberlain.

In a number of ways, Merchant of Venice gives clues to the extreme nature of Shakespeare's desire: the only couple willing to "hazard all" and elope are gentile and Jew: Lorenzo and Jessica. (Shakespeare invented the name, Jessica, for Merchant of Venice, adapting Iscah, a name found in Genesis that means "Yahweh beholds.")

By setting the play in Venice instead of London, Shakespeare could show a multicultural society where Christians, Jews and Muslims intermingled. Where else could Portia's suitors from Naples, France, England, Scotland, Germany, North Africa arrive and depart? Where else but in the Veneto would women be educated enough to impersonate attorneys? Where else but Venice would power rest in a secular Republican council? More specifically, where else could the pound-of-flesh idea be feasible? Venetian law (based on Old Roman law) differed from English law. In Venice, after a note was due, the law allowed a 30-day grace period. If the debt was still outstanding, debtors could be sold into slavery or hanged. Before the sentence was carried out, the court allowed an extension of three days. On each day, the debtor would be brought to a public square and creditors were allowed to slice off bits of his flesh as an incentive for the debtor's friends and family to scramble for funds. Shylock's demand for pound of flesh was merely an exaggeration of this practice.

The Pearl has created a marvelous Merchant. The cast's performances, timing and emotional range are impeccable. The exquisite poetry and the delightful comedy --particularly Celeste Ciulla's mocking of Portia's suitors - are flawless. Ciulla's Portia -- in female and male attire -- is superb. Her courtroom argument never gets bogged down in The Message. Her Portia knows she's smart, and seems completely confidant that she's going to win the case. As Jessica and Lorenzo, Sean McNall and Eunice Wong almost shimmer with love and happiness.

When Dan Daily as Antonio interacts with Scott Whitehurst as Bassanio, they appear connected by an unbreakable bond of friendship. Conversely, when Daily and Cuskern go at it, their hatred is palpable. Daily, who often plays comic roles, makes in interesting choice for Antonio-- affable with his buddies yet fully capable of alfa-male agression.

For low comedy, Shakespeare gives us the father and son Gobbos (Edward Seamon and Andy Prosky). As played by Seamon and Prosky, this relationship is as tender as it is funny, for the father is dependent on the son -- the reverse of Portia's dutiful reverence for her father and Jessica's outright rejection of hers.

The lighting and bare stage worked well and allowed Sam Fleming's fabulous costumes to establish the affluence of the characters and the period. Shylock's gray tunic, dark hose and yamulke, however, makes little sense. His mitteleuropean look not only deprives the audience a glimpse of the diversity within the Venetian Ghetto, but also fails to illustrate how Shylock's economic competitiveness and hubris play significant roles in his downfall.

Overall, this is a fabulous production. I urge anyone who ever studied Merchant of Venice or plans to do so to go see it at the Pearl!

Editor's Note: Readers might want to read a review of a Shakespeare & Company Merchant production that caused quite a stir about its potentially inflammatory nature -- here.

The Merchant of Venice
By William Shakespeare
Director: Shepard Sobel
Cast: Dan Daily,Cornell Womack Scott Whitehurst, Jason Ma, Sean McNall Christopher Moore. Celeste Ciulla, Rachel Botchan, Patrick Toon, Dominic Cuskern, S. Calli Sarkesh, Andy Prosky, Edward Seamon, Edward Griffin, Eunice Wong
Set Design: Sarah Lambert
Costume Design: Sam Fleming
Sound Design: Sara Bader
Light Design: Stephen Petrilli
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes (including 15 minute intermission)
Pearl Theatre Company, 80 St. Mark's Place (near First Avenue) 212-598-9802
November 4 through December 7 2003. Alternates with The Rivals C
Reviewed by Carolyn Balducci based on November 2nd pressperformance

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