by William Shakespeare

The Merchant of Venice

OCT 28-NOV 13
Ivy Tech Waldron Auditorium

H-T Review

‘Merchant of Venice’ a balanced production 

By Matthew Waterman
November 2, 2016

img_8722It’s been quite some time since Cardinal Stage Company tackled a Shakespeare piece. Ordinarily, IU and Monroe County Civic Theater maintain a near monopoly on the Bard in Bloomington.

That is clearly not for lack of ability. Cardinal’s current production, “The Merchant of Venice,” dispels any notion that Shakespeare is out of the company’s domain.

The play runs through the first half of November in Ivy Tech Waldron Arts Center’s Whikehart Auditorium. Director Randy White has staged “Merchant” with an all-female cast.

There are all sorts of justifications that might be advanced for casting only women, including a desire to tinker with the play’s themes of gender performance. In my view, an enlightened literary justification is not necessary.

The all-female cast balances out some of Cardinal’s male-heavy shows (think “Lord of the Flies,” “Of Mice and Men,” “1776,” etc.). Furthermore, Shakespeare’s plays were produced with all-male casts for the Bard’s whole life and years after. So why not cast all women? The gender of the actors is hardly noticeable after a few minutes.

“The Merchant of Venice” is one of Shakespeare’s richest and most poignant comedies. A young Venetian called Bassanio (Caitlan Taylor) sets out to woo Portia (Leslie Ann Handelman), a beautiful woman of noble rank with a sizeable inheritance. Being a suitor to a wealthy heiress has more than a few expenses, and Bassanio is broke. He approaches his friend Antonio (Amira Sabbagh) for a loan. Antonio is more than willing, but he doesn’t have the cash necessary at the moment. Since he expects to be rich again soon, Antonio has Bassanio take out an interest-free loan from Shylock (Liz Pazik), a Jewish moneylender, naming Antonio as the guarantor. Antonio agrees without a second thought that the penalty for failing to repay the loan on time shall be a pound of his flesh.

Predictably, Antonio is not able to repay the loan. Shylock refuses to back down; he wants a pound of Antonio’s flesh and nothing less. The issue is resolved (bloodlessly) in an iconic courtroom scene best known for Portia’s speech on “the quality of mercy.”

White has put together a very balanced production. In the conflict between Shylock and the Christian characters, neither faction comes across as unambiguously noble or evil.

It is tempting to portray Shylock in a hyper-sympathetic light in an effort to downplay the obvious anti-Semitism embodied by that character. However, the audience can’t be expected to ignore the unappealing elements of Shylock’s character, and it doesn’t prevent “Merchant of Venice” from being anti-Semitic.

I prefer this production’s more nuanced approach. When Shylock rejects Antonio’s pleas to be spared the knife, Shylock is the villain. When he delivers the famous “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech, or when his yarmulke is cruelly ripped from his head, Shylock is the victim. Shakespeare’s plays are all bigoted in one way or another; those ideas can’t be undone by directors.

“Merchant” thrives on a strong cast. Liz Pazik makes a tough and unyielding Shylock. Yadira Correa’s Gratiano has a certain grit and intensity. The most memorable performance here comes, without a doubt, from Nicole Bruce. As Gobbo, Shylock’s unfaithful servant, Bruce elicits as many laughs as the rest of the cast combined. Her scrappy and energetic performance incorporates a healthy dose of audience interaction.

Ellen MacKay outfitted the characters in American garb of the 1920s. That setting, like the choice of an all-female cast, was oddly fitting, but the focus is on the story and the text.

Focusing on the story and the text, when it comes to Shakespeare, is never a mistake. “The Merchant of Venice” offers gorgeous language and rock-solid cast.