The Merchant of Venice

by Max Carlson

While the Guthrie Theater still hasn’t justified the multi-million dollar pil-grimage from what was already a perfectly good theater, they nevertheless continue to produce lavish interpretations of Shakespeare plays that are certainly bearable to say the least. Their latest, The Merchant of Venice, is no exception.

The play was, in fact, abridged as most all Shakespeare is these days, but it wasn’t quite abridged enough. As the evening progressed, the play became overlong and a bit drawn out. Cutting some dialog and even a few scenes would have helped to keep things fresh (I was at a preview show, and this may have been remedied). What was fresh was the choice of setting the play in a 18th century “Amadeus” style look. Refinery and elegance oozed from the stage in this delicious looking production.

The scenery, itself, is worthy of praise. While any good theater company should be able to produce Shakespeare without the aid of a nice eye-candy set, it certainly can’t hurt things—as long as you don’t overdo it. Thankfully the Guthrie doesn’t. The set is gorgeous and brilliant looking. In the opening sequence one can’t help but have his or her breath taken away as glowing chandeliers ascend and the numerous brass doors part simultaneously to reveal beautiful glowing red backdrops (different colors represent different locations). In actuality, the set is pretty straightforward —no distracting scene shifts with overbearing sets (such as in The Great Gatsby) and no overuse of that tiresome hole in the center of the stage—no use at all, in fact. By doing away with those pesky and lengthy scene shifts, the cast is able to get on and off the stage quickly, and a good thing too, because with a lengthy play like this one no time need be wasted.

There was fairly typical acting like any Guthrie performances—some hits, some misses, mostly in the way the actors chose to interpret their characters. Michelle O’Neil’s Portia was very striking and sophisticated, but strength was lacking in her lawyer disguise. Sally Wingart’s flighty Midwestern forthrightness is perfect her for Nerissa, Portia’s servant. Ron Menzel’s Bassanio was romantic lush, as expected. Jim Lichtscheudl gave the clown Lancelot a whiney, pathetic and silly rendition, and I loved every moment he floundered about the stage. The supporting cast generally was all in fine form. Robert Dorfman chose to portray Shylock in the more sensitive of interpretations, and watching his spirit diminish as the play progressed was emotionally touching, I couldn’t help but become irritated with his occasional off the wall vocalizations. I did not like the choice of having him deliver his “hath not a Jew eyes” in such a subdued fashion either (Al Pacino hits it out of the park in the 2004 film version). Richard Iglewski’s Antonio was well spoken and well paced but his fairly straightforward and unsympathetic characterization was lackluster enough to have me routing for Shylock to actually receive a pound of his flesh in the end.

Still, over the years Joe Dowling comedies have always been some of his strongest work—some of his most impressionable anyway. The family dynamics in the Chekhov plays are a better fit for Dowling’s comedic skills, but his Shakespeare is never off-putting. Sometimes he stoops for corniness—having the Belmont ladies in waiting harmonize majestically as the three boxes descend from above is clearly not to be taken seriously (if it was, it was a tremendous misjudgment). But Dowling knows what he’s doing and I’ll definitely be there when he revives his Midsummer Night’s Dream—or any other Shakespeare work, for that matter.