by CHRISTOPHER RAWSON | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Why now? Why Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” in 2016? Because money still trumps love. Because racism and anti-Semitism flourish. And because the quality of mercy is indeed strained — which means “constrained,” i.e. limited. Portia is talking about how things ought to be, while we (and she) know that mercy is constrained everywhere we look.
These are the major moral conflicts raised by Shakespeare’s famous play, once classed as a comedy but more recently as something like a tragedy lit with flashes of comic possibility. “Merchant” is certainly a play for today, with its unique mix of tragic, comic and surreal.
Director/adapter Alan Stanford’s very capable version, at PICT through Nov. 19, focuses on this tragic moral quagmire while making what case it can for the play’s love stories, if not its rather unpleasant comedy. With 14 performers and a new theatrical space, it’s a huge undertaking. A few actors aren’t up to snuff, but the result is still a meaty meal.
The audience of about 150 is arranged on opposite sides of the stage at the Union Project. Acoustics are surprisingly good. PICT sets the play in the 1930s of rich men’s clubs and country estates. The set is sparely furnished, as in Shakespeare’s day: Simple white couches are moved as needed, while a drinks table offers wine in one scene, martinis in a second and coffee in a third — detail that tells a lot.
The tragic hero is of course Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. Yes, he turns vengeful, seeking Antonio’s blood, but the play dramatizes his provocations, and the Venetian Christians spit on him even as they need the service he offers. In any case, a tragic hero need not be admirable: compare Macbeth and Othello.
That he is tragic is certainly the stance of Mr. Stanford and his Shylock, James FitzGerald. He is the best thing in the play, a careful, capable, warily emotional man who has prospered in a poisonous environment but is finally brought low by hate (theirs and his) and a system stacked high against him.
Much is always made of how the court justly brings him down, but the laws Portia cites are nonsense, making it clear that the famous bond Antonio entered into was fraudulent from the start.
That Portia in her disguise as a crisp young male lawyer crushes Shylock rather darkens the other half of the play, in which she is the brilliant young heiress wooed successfully by Bassanio, the play’s apparent hero. After the famous trial (the only scene director Stanford plays without a single trim), three pairs of lovers are left to unravel their amatory confusions and live happily ever after.
But the gloom of Shylock’s tragedy still hangs in the air at Portia’s estate, where his daughter, Jessica, who has run off with a Christian, comes to regret her betrayal of faith and family. Mr. Stanford ends the play with Jessica alone, unable to share in the ribald babble of rings and pens, until oddly comforted by the bizarre clown, Gobbo.
None of this is in Shakespeare — he left few stage directions — but it shapes the play. The usual alternative is to end instead with an ambiguous trio, Portia with Bassanio, while Antonio, who may have been his lover, is the odd man out.
PICT combines the three scenes with the caskets, among which those chasing Portia’s money must choose. The heavy text cutting is a compliment to Parag S. Gohel, whose voluble Prince of Morocco, played as a Porfirio Rubirosa lover, is cut very little. Ken Bolden chips in a brisk, heavily accented Prince of Arragon.
The less successful comic subplot concerns Gobbo, played with panache by Connor McCanlus, but why is he allowed to be so invariably insolent, whining and slow? His only appeal is in befriending Jessica. Played by Fredi Bernstein, she makes her best impression in that final scene, where her silence speaks volumes.
The skilled Martin Giles brings interesting complexity to Antonio, with his smug disdain and a white coat to die for. Jonathan Visser commands the stage as the self-indulgent motormouth Gratiano, making you hate his racism and conceit. Fortunately, he meets his match in Karen Baum’s no-nonsense Nerissa.
Luke Halferty is an unusual Bassanio, quick spoken with a touch of hauteur but as likable as a darling of the gods can be. As Portia, Gayle Pazerski is somewhat pallid in her early scenes, where she could be a more glamorous Noel Coward heroine, with riding gear and martinis to match, but she comes into her own in the trial scene, playing with simple authority, the better to focus our attention on Shylock.
Mr. FitzGerald repays that attention. His intensity digs deep, revealing the faults in self and society we all must face.