First Folio reveals 'Merchant's' humor, dark heart

 
 
Posted7/20/2012 6:00 AM
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  • Shylock (Michael Goldberg, standing center) prepares to exact payment from the merchant Antonio (Michael Joseph Mitchell, kneeling center) to the horror of best friend Bassanio (Kevin McKillip, right) and a disguised Portia (Melanie Keller, left) in First Folio Theatre's production of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice."

    Shylock (Michael Goldberg, standing center) prepares to exact payment from the merchant Antonio (Michael Joseph Mitchell, kneeling center) to the horror of best friend Bassanio (Kevin McKillip, right) and a disguised Portia (Melanie Keller, left) in First Folio Theatre's production of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice."

  • The contempt moneylender Shylock (Michael Goldberg, right) bears for Bassanio (Kevin McKillip, left) and Antonio (Michael Joseph Mitchell, center) doesn't prevent him from agreeing to a business proposition in "The Merchant of Venice" directed by First Folio Theatre artistic director Alison C. Vesely.

    The contempt moneylender Shylock (Michael Goldberg, right) bears for Bassanio (Kevin McKillip, left) and Antonio (Michael Joseph Mitchell, center) doesn't prevent him from agreeing to a business proposition in "The Merchant of Venice" directed by First Folio Theatre artistic director Alison C. Vesely.

  • Bassanio (Kevin McKillip, right) prepares to choose the casket that could win him the hand of Portia (Melanie Keller, second from right) in marriage while Gratiano (Kris Reilly, left) and Portia's lady-in-waiting Nerissa (Hayley L. Rice) look on in First Folio Theatre's "The Merchant of Venice."

    Bassanio (Kevin McKillip, right) prepares to choose the casket that could win him the hand of Portia (Melanie Keller, second from right) in marriage while Gratiano (Kris Reilly, left) and Portia's lady-in-waiting Nerissa (Hayley L. Rice) look on in First Folio Theatre's "The Merchant of Venice."

After 400 years, the thorns that surround the prickly "The Merchant of Venice" remain as difficult as ever to prune.

Racism, greed and vengeance underscore Shakespeare's "problem play," which makes villains out of victims and vice versa. In this ever-resonant examination of an uncivil society -- well-acted and dutifully rendered on the outdoor stage at First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook -- a devout Jewish moneylender demands from his debtor a pound of flesh. A generous merchant forces upon his creditor a religious conversion that will ravage that man's soul. A daughter steals from her father and exchanges family heirlooms for trifles, while a father reaches out from beyond the grave to control his daughter's most intimate affairs.

And when the appeal for compassion comes, a drop of mercy to end this incivility, it falls on deaf ears.

At the same time, "The Merchant of Venice" is a love story in which a young man tries to win the heart of a wise and wealthy young woman. Balancing the two halves of this thorny whole -- not to mention its subtextual bromance -- falls to First Folio artistic director Alison C. Vesely.

I've seen productions of "The Merchant of Venice" that emphasize pursuit of profit above all else. I've seen others that examine how anti-Semitism contaminates a community. But never have I experienced a production that mines the humor in this controversial "comedy" as well as Vesely's well-informed and wisely cast production.

I can honestly say, I've never laughed so heartily at a "Merchant" production thanks in part to broadly comic performances from Nate Santana as the cheeky servant Lancelot Gobbo, Lane Flores as the deliciously foppish Spanish nobleman and Stephen Collins-Stepney as the arrogant Moroccan prince. Together they provide a welcome counterpoint to the play's somber refrain. That refrain echoes most obviously through Shylock, the Jewish moneylender played by Michael Goldberg.

Goldberg, who stands about 6-foot-three, is an imposing presence. His stance suggests purpose and determination. But his eyes and the timbre of his voice reveal a man made weary by the countless indignities inflicted by Christians. It's a deliberate, subtle portrayal of a man driven to extremes by grief and anger. Except that in Goldberg's hands, Shylock's anger never boils over. It simmers, evidenced by the chilling promise he makes to his Christian counterparts to execute "the villainy you teach me."

There is never any doubt he will make good on his promise. The opportunity to do so comes in the form of the merchant Antonio (Michael Joseph Mitchell), who agrees to lend best friend Bassanio (the ever genuine Kevin McKillip) money so Bassanio can pursue the wealthy Portia (a gracious, reasoned Melanie Keller).

Because Antonio has no ready cash, he arranges a loan from Shylock who demands Antonio forfeit a pound of his own flesh if he does not repay the debt. Bassanio's suit proves successful, winning Portia's hand even as his friend Gratiano (Kris Reilly) wins the heart of her lady-in-waiting, Nerissa (Hayley L. Rice).

Meanwhile Shylock's daughter Jessica (Cassidy Shea Stirtz) has eloped with a Christian named Lorenzo (Luke Daigle), taking a considerable amount of her father's fortune with her. But their combined marital bliss is cut short by news that Antonio has forfeited his loan. Portia responds by sending Bassanio to Shylock with double the payment, which Shylock rejects. In a hearing before the Duke (Rene Ruelas), Shylock demands payment from Antonio, whose defense falls to the young legal scholar Balthazar (Portia in disguise).

The play concludes, as all Shakespeare comedies do, with nuptials and Vesely's telling postscript which suggests Jessica may be more her father's daughter than she ever imagined.

Yet even the obvious happiness of the well-matched Portia and Bassanio can't disperse the unease reflected in scenic artist Ann Davis' murky, richly melancholy mural of Venice's Grand Canal -- an ever-present reminder of "Merchant's" dark heart.

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