A lot has been written about William Shakespeare’s most disputatious play, The Merchant of Venice, with its themes of profiteering, greed, questionable agendas and religious persecution casting deep shadows on the conduct of its characters. Here is a play in which the main characters formulate a plan to bilk a young heiress out of her money by borrowing from a local money lender they despise, while the money lender’s daughter steals from him to run away with her destitute lover, only to have the abused money lender vilified for demanding restitution when the unethical plan goes south. Even for hard-core anglophiles, this one is a hard sell.
Let’s face it, Shakespeare is a hard enough nut to crack, especially for 21st century audiences with their short attention spans and desire for flash over substance. Yes, many of the themes found within the bard’s work are universal and continue to have relevance today, which is a testament to its staying power, but that is also the crux of what makes it work. When it does, the result is magnificent, but when it doesn’t, it can be deadly.
Take for instance such recent presentations as American Southwest Theatre Company’s vibrant and accessible Twelfth Night or the magnificent and very well received Midsummer Night’s Dream by Project In Motion two years ago. The producers went out of their way to make both productions fresh, exciting and, thus, relatable to a modern audience. Even more amazing, they did it without the use of stupid cat videos. Now that’s innovative.
Which makes one wonder why a fledgling organization like the Doña Ana Repertory Theater would take on a production like Merchant Of Venice as their debut performance. This is a play riddled with problems, especially in these histrionically-charged times, when political correctness is viewed as a mandate and the razor thin line of acceptance is not easily navigated. It’s a bit like staging Hedwig And The Angry Inch in the rectory of the Westboro Baptist Church. Sure, it can be done, but will the audience pick up on the nuances of the production, or will they focus instead on the red flags? I think we all know the answer to that question.
All that said, the inherent problems are compounded in this particular production by uneven casting and questionable directorial choices. The convoluted plot, for instance, is further confounded by young and inexperienced actors garbling and rushing through their lines as though desperate simply to complete them. Shakespearean dialog is hard enough to understand for most modern audiences, but there are moments during this production when even experienced ears have a very hard time following the action.
Which is not to say that all of the actors are so inclined. This production receives high marks for compelling turns by Darin Robert Cabot as the brash and besotted Bassanio, director Joseph Lopez as the misguided and unfortunate merchant Antonio and the inimitable Algernon D’Ammassa giving a dexterous and nuanced performance in the key role of the “evil Jew” Shylock. All serve to prove that even characters with questionable ethics can be executed with compassion and subtlety.
The production is further redeemed by powerfully eloquent performances from stage veterans Dave Edwards, Richard Rundell and Mark Steffen. Steffen’s small turn as the bombastic suitor Arragon in particular is delightfully over-the-top, as is the blind and bumbling bumpkin Gobbo, as performed by Edwards. Up-and-comers Julian Alexander – who proves once again that nobody plays cocky and self-involved better – and Erin Wendorf, in a role normally played by a male actor, but skillfully performed with an effortless grace, are also unexpected delights. The presence of these fine actors is greatly missed during those shaky scenes when none appear onstage.
Another problem with this performance is the placement of the action in a contemporary setting, which is puzzling at best, especially as one begins to realize that the reasoning seems to be simple economics, rather than the lending of insight. A contemporary setting means no need for expensive costuming or elaborate sets. But whereas a play like Romeo & Juliet or Macbeth actually benefit from a modern context, by showing that themes like the defiance of family in favor of love, or political intrigue in pursuit of personal gain are timeless, setting The Merchant of Venice in an amorphous present only serves to highlight how dated and inappropriate the themes are to a modern audience.
It’s a bit like trying to do a modern reboot of offensive caricatures like Pigmeat Markham or Fu Manchu. If the latest reboot of the Lone Ranger taught us anything, it’s that even the starpower of somebody like Johnny Depp can’t overcome a tired and no longer acceptable stereotype like Tonto. Taken out of context – the time in which the Lone Ranger was actually written and performed – the trope seems outdated and unforgivably racist. The same can be said for this venerable and problematic offering by the Bard. What is normally seen as a controversial and cruel portrait of a flawed social system some five hundred years in the past, becomes little more than an unfashionable and distasteful minstrel show when set in modern times.
Even the changing of the character of Gratiano to a female seems contrived merely to capitalize on the recent ruling in favor of gay marriage. What would have seemed avante garde, even two years ago – having the young noble(wo)man fall in love with a lady-in-waiting and ask for her hand in marriage – comes across as unnecessary pandering to give the updated setting more relevance. Perhaps it was meant to counteract some of the anti-Semitic sting, but as it adds nothing to the plot in terms of insight, the contrivance falls flat.
Which brings us back to the question of why this particular play was chosen as the inaugural presentation by a promising and badly needed collective like Doña Ana Repertory Theater? Wouldn’t a more accessible representation of the bard’s work, like any of the aforementioned productions, have been in order? Even Julius Caesar or Henry V might have made better offerings, especially as they lend themselves well to modern dress and parallel many of the tribulations still faced by politicians today.
It is so very rare and laudable to have a troupe of actors come together with the sole purpose of “training a new generation of theater artists and building a wider audience for live theater,” especially in Las Cruces. I had fervently hoped, and still do, that Doña Ana Repertory Theatre would follow in the footsteps of the excellent Scaffolding Theater Company with well-staged productions and superlative acting to reinvigorate the flagging enthusiasm for live performance.
This long-time thespian hopes that future offerings by this troupe will do more to entice those ever-dwindling audiences in with more accessible and exciting representations of the artform, rather than over-stepping their capabilities in favor of ambitious pomp. Sometimes less really is more, particularly when attempting to build an audience. As a member of that audience who is more than ready to be possessed, I anxiously await the opportunity a second chance provides.
The Merchant of Venice debuted at the Las Cruces Community Theatre on Thursday, July 9, with performances on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, July 10, 11 & 12. A second run will take place at the Rynerson House, 266 W. Court Ave. in Las Cruces on Thursday and Friday, July 23 & 24 at 8pm, then again at the same venue on Thursday, July 30 at 8pm. It will also be presented twice at the Deming Depot Theatre, 217 N. Country Club Road in Deming on Saturday July 25 at 2 and 8pm. Two more presentations will take place at the Glasbox Photography Studio, 210 Poplar St. in El Paso on Friday, July 31 and Saturday, August 1, at 8pm. Tickets are $10 general admission for each run.