The Merchant of Venice has been making the rounds. Last year it was superstar Al Pacino as Shylock in the Public Theatre’s production in Central Park (later transferred to a limited Broadway run) This year the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production at Stratford-Upon-Avon features superstar Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard to you Star Trek junkies). And now in Delaware Park, Buffalo’s own superstar, Saul Elkin, takes on the troublesome role of Shylock in a wonderful, animated, and soulful production directed by Brian Cavanagh.
Mr. Cavanagh, best known as Buffalo’s premier lighting designer, also served many years as Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s technical director. For more than a decade it was he who built the stage step by step, and reversed the process at the end of each season. To say that he knows every square inch of the stage at Shakespeare Hill, is an understatement, to say that he knows how to use every square inch as a director is no overstatement.
The Merchant of Venice is the story of Antonio (The Merchant, played with great depth and sensitivity by park veteran Peter Palmisano) whose good friend, Bassiano (a dashing Adriano Gatto) has fallen hard for the beautiful and wealthy Portia (a most excellent, lucid and lovely Susan Drozd). Unable to fund his romantic quest, Bassiano turns to Antonio for financial support, but the Merchant has all his money invested in ships currently at sea. Antonio bids Bassiano to seek what loans he can obtain on Antonio’s good credit. Bassiano goes to Shylock, a Jew who is known to finance large loans. Shylock bears a deep grudge against Antonio (and all his class of Venetians) who have mocked and scorned him over the years as a moneylender and a heathen.
Nevertheless, Shylock offers Antonio the loan with only a “joke” as collateral, that is if Antonio defaults Shylock would have but a “pound of Antonio’s flesh” as his penalty. No one believes Shylock would ever make good on the bond, especially as the required assets will surely come home to port with just one of Antonio’s many ships.
With funds in hand, Bassiano is off to woo Portia. Meanwhile, Shylock’s daughter Jessica, (a lovely performance by Leah Russo) escapes her father’s oppressive household, taking a sizable fortune with her and then weds Lorenzo, a Christian. Shylock is beside himself with the betrayal, the humiliation, the anger and hatred. Antonio’s ships are lost at sea, and the bond is forfeit. Even if one never saw The Merchant of Venice before, one could guess the rest.
Shakespeare intended “Merchant” as a tragedy-comedy, and so it is, although the “comedy” is a bit stretched and largely embodied in the quality of the clowns, the servants Launcelot and his father, Old Gobbo. These two characters offer a very broad physical comedy, the kind the groundlings would have loved and cheered (and who are well executed here by Chris Labanca and David Lundy, respectively.) Other than that, comedy is a pretty rare commodity.
The “wit” and barbs are otherwise most often made at Shylock’s expense. Antonio, and Bassiano’s friends Gratiano, Salanio, and Salerio (David Autovino Joe Cassidy and Matt Witten, all spot-on and properly full of themselves as young Venetians about town) pepper their comments with sarcasm, disdain and racism. Even the Duke (a majestic Jay Desiderio) gets in some licks.
Not that Shylock doesn’t get in his own jabs. He gives as good as he gets, or would have, had the social deck not been so heavily stacked against a sixteenth century European Hebrew.
And there’s the rub, so to speak. That is the dilemma which so often plagues modern interpretations of The Merchant of Venice. There is a tendency to soften those anti-Semitic blows, either in sincere deference to the feelings of those who would be hurt by the awful words, or in fear of the reaction which they may (and often do) provoked. Indeed, Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s last production of Merchant in 1996 generated some heartfelt protests. Though, ironically, Mr. Elkin’s portrayal of Shylock in that production was far softer, and much more the victim than in this current production.
This play is often been at odds with modern sensibilities. Taken at face value the issue of anti-Semitism which Shakespeare so boldly employs in this story can rightly raise hackles and offend those who are rightfully guarded about the appearance, or any suggestion, of the mad dog of prejudice. It does not take a holocaust to sharpen that nerve, but obviously, our mid- twentieth century history, still a living memory for many people, sharpens the reality of anti-Semitism, and for that matter, genocide in all its gruesome manifestations.
At its heart though, The Merchant of Venice is less about racism than about the poison of greed. The character of Shylock is a convenient vessel, but he’s hardly the only character who is consumed by greed in the play, and certainly not the one least entitled to his anger. Shakespeare, in my mind anyhow, was tremendously forward looking in dealing with the subject of anti-Semitism at all, at least given the historical context. The Inquisition raged across Europe, Queen Elizabeth’s own personal doctor, Rodigo Lopez, a Portuguese native and a ” hidden Jew”, was a successful, highly acclaimed physician, but fell victim to a charge of conspiring to poison the Queen, and ultimately was drawn and quartered. The charges were trumped-up and no doubt anti-Jewish sentiments were the fuel. Some think Lopez was the inspiration for Shylock, but while it was a concurrent and topical event, there is no proof of any connection.
The Merchant of Venice works best when the director pulls no punches and lets the words Shakespeare wrote tell the story. Quite wisely, director Cavanagh has done just that, and managed to stage, in two- and- a-half hours, a fast and fluid version which suits the park (and that stage he knows so well).
Allowed his full vigor, this Shylock may be a victim, but Saul Elkin does not play him as the victim. Mr. Elkin seems so right for this part now, age appropriate, and confident in the character, he handles the language beautifully, certainly as well as you will ever hear it. The result is a much more human Shylock, one at whose audacious hatred one can gasp, but also one whose wounded psyche one can grasp. The audience here can sympathize when Shylock’s utter defeat comes in no small part because Shylock goes down swinging, no more nor less imperfect than those around him.
Supporting roles in the park are often truly secondary, in more ways than one. In this large cast, however, the second string is largely first rate. Kay Keriman as Nerissa, Portia’s friend and confident, turns in a wonderful performance, more than holding her own in all her scenes. Larry Smith as the suitor Prince of Arragon and Monish Bhattacharyya as the counterpart Prince of Monaco offer some nice additional comedy and Dominic Mazella is a most competent court clerk. Brendan Cunningham turns in a sturdy Tubal, Shylock’s friend and “go-to” guy. Some of the characters are drawn a bit too broadly, but as a rule of thumb, the actors can get away with stuff on this huge outd
oor stage which would never fly indoors.
At first the technical support seems a bit off kilter. Yet the costume design by Ken Shaw, showy and fantastical, works in this space, again, just as the large park setting allows. The set design, by Ron Schwartz, doesn’t scream “Venice”, but it also works well, and the little pier is an inspired exclamation point. The lights by Chris Cavanagh are effective and even subtle when necessary, no easy task outdoors. Tom Makar offers a very different sound design here, but it also works well with this production. It’s all a bit mish-mash, but ultimately all blends nicely.
Overall, this Merchant of Venice makes for a great show. The director has made some wise cuts which help pick up the pace, and, license in hand, he’s added a touching bit at the end which works quite well in this production. Get thee to the Realto, Buffalo, ye will be glad of it.
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, by William Shakespeare, Directed by Brian Cavanagh and starring Saul Elkin, for Shakespeare in Delaware Park, at Shakespeare Hill in Delaware Park, through July 10*.
Susan Drozd as Portia, Peter Palmisano as Antonio and Adrianno Gatto as Bassario, photo credit Chris Cavanagh.
*Shakespeare starts at 7pm, but don’t forget to show up at 5pm to catch live music at the Rose Garden pergola (atop Shakespeare Hill) every Thursday before the play begins – brought to you by our friends at the Olmsted Parks. It’s called Summer Breeze at the Lake… check out the schedule.