Like America’s bankers and Republicans, we’re supposed to love Shakespeare’s Venetians in spite of their faults. While Bassanio, hero of The Merchant of Venice, is wooing Portia, and the jolly Lorenzo is eloping with Jessica, we’re intended to be on board with the idea that the ladies’ money is part of the equation. Portia has shown a predisposition to Bassanio, after all, and Jessica wishes to escape her possessive Jewish father, Shylock, and convert to Christianity. Our title character, Antonio, is a contemptuous anti-Semite, but he’s generous too, and ready to do anything to promote Bassanio’s happiness. Even the wise and scholarly Portia is tainted with racism, but during her stellar courtroom scene, we’re expected to join in the universal hosannas.
Many modern productions attempt to tip the delicate moral balance of Merchant, indicting the prejudice and materialism of the Venetians who gather to party in Act 5 while upholding the Bard as a staunch supporter of oppressed Jews. Co-directed by Elise Wilkinson and Joe Copley, the current Charlotte Shakespeare production at McGlohon Theatre doesn’t follow that crowd, and in an era of moral cocksureness, that decision qualifies as a welcome act of courage.
If Christian Casper’s performance as the Jewish moneylender isn’t the most impactful that I’ve ever seen, it is certainly the most balanced — demonstrating that a scrupulously realistic portrayal of Shylock can be stirring and perturbing. Chad Calvert’s take on the merchant Antonio is also satisfyingly complex, built on the bedrocks of generosity, passivity, and melancholy. He quietly laughs off Shylock’s bitterness toward his past slights, and in the great courtroom scene, reinforces his original professions of world-weariness with a very believable resignation to his fate. Antonio’s personal isolation only comes to the fore at the final fadeout.
Of course, Brandi Nicole Feemster’s own color lightens the offence we take at Portia’s distaste for the Prince of Morocco — while endowing Bassanio’s love for her (and Antonio’s support of it) with an extra nobility. Tim Sailer isn’t the hunkiest Bassanio you’ll ever see, but his pure ardor cements a wondrous chemistry between the two lovers, so the final casket scene is moving. Younger and more juvenile, Brian Seagroves as Lorenzo and Ashley Childers as Jessica are a delightful echo of Bassanio and Portia. Jonavan Adams as Bassanio’s sidekick Gratiano and Teresa Hopson as Portia’s lady-in-waiting Nerissa make the earthiest couple. Adams also gets a nice comical cameo as Morocco, equaled by Tim Laurio’s turn as Prince of Morocco.
All of the cast, right on down to Ian Fermy as Launcelot and Corlis Hayes as Old Gobbo, perform admirably — so on a Broadway scale, Charlotte Shakespeare’s suggested donation of $5 would be a steal at 20 times the price. By not messing with the moral ecosystem of the script, this Merchant preserves Shakespeare’s deeper point. Throughout the evening, the Venetians and their visitors from abroad are making promises, taking oaths, and signing contracts. The worldly Bard allows some flexibility when Portia and Nerissa give their men their rings, and do we really believe that Morocco and Aragon will uphold their promises never to marry after they return to their own realms?
No, it’s malign duplicity and legalistic rigidity that Shakespeare abhors. Shylock offers his “merry bond,” the famous “pound of flesh” in exchange for granting Antonio credit, because his murderous hatred for the merchant has reached a monstrous depth that no pleas for mercy and no offers of hard cash can reach. He will have the letter of his bond fulfilled. What Portia teaches the moneylender — with an edge of richly deserved mercilessness — is to be careful what you wish for. As she becomes a woman again, Portia’s chicanery with her wedding ring is also more admirable than Shylock’s, ultimately exemplifying her tolerance for human frailty.
Charlotte Shakespeare’s 2012 Merchant rises to the same quality plateau as last year’s Lear with some noticeable gains in polish. Costumes by Erin B. Dougherty and lighting by Trista Rothe Bremer are the most obvious upgrades, but props by Clare Shaffer and set design by Copley also pass muster, particularly if we apply the quality of mercy to their frugality.