Bruce E. Brandt. "Review of The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis, Minnesota. 10 March- 6 May, 2007." Early Modern Literary Studies 13.3 (January, 2008) 24.1-6 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/13-3/revmov.htm>.
Directed by Joe Dowling. Set designed by Riccardo Hernández. Costumes designed by Paul Tazewell. Lighting designed by Matthew Reinert. Music composed by Keith Thomas. Sound designed by Scott W. Edwards. Dramaturgy by Michael Lupu. Voice and language consulting by Andrew Wade. Movement by Marcela Lorca. With With Matthew Amendt (Lorenzo), Raye Birk (Balthazar/jailer), Michael Booth (Solanio), Robert Dorfman (Shylock), Wayne A. Evenson (Salarino), Susan Hofflander (serving woman), Richard Iglewski (Antonio), Jim Lichtscheidl (Lancelot Gobbo), Ron Menzel (Bassanio), Kris L. Nelson (Leonardo/Stephano), Lee Mark Nelson (Gratiano), Michelle O'Neill (Portia), Stephen Pelinski (Arragon/Duke), Mark Rosenwinkel (Old Gobbo/Tubal), William Sturdivant (Morocco), Christine Weber (Jessica), and Sally Wingert (Nerissa)..
This Merchant of Venice was played on the Wurtele Thrust Stage in the Guthrie’s impressive new three-stage building. The stage retains the asymmetrical configuration of the original Guthrie stage and has a similar seating pattern. As at the older theatre, the cast makes extensive use of the aisles for entrances and exits, intimately connecting the audience to the stage action. Director Joe Dowling set the play in the mid-eighteenth century, and the costuming was resplendent with wigs, waistcoats, and gowns. The primary clothing hues for the scenes in Venice were black, red, and a metallic gold, the last suggestive of the city’s mercantile values. In Belmont, brighter and happier than Venice, the colour palette became more varied, particularly in the elegant women’s dresses created by costume designer Paul Tazewell. The set, designed by Riccardo Hernández, featured a semicircular wall that closed off the back of the stage. It contained a series of arched doors, set flush with the wall, which not only allowed for entrances and exits, but altered the feel and illumination of the playing space depending on whether they were left open or closed. The wall and stage floor were sheathed in copper—another metallic colour suggestive of money. The silhouette of a cityscape hung above the curved wall, portraying the Venetian setting. Three large columns (respectively coloured gold, silver, and lead) were placed toward the back of the stage, simultaneously suggesting Venetian architecture and providing a visual tie-in to Belmont and the caskets. Six large glass chandeliers, lowered in various combinations, were used to signal a shift of scene from Venice to Belmont. During the scenes in which the suitors made their choices, large gold, silver, and lead caskets were flown in and hovered at waist height. The lack of visible support for the caskets added a sense of the fantastic to these moments.
The rationale for Dowling’s choice of the eighteenth-century was discussed in his introduction to the program as well as in the Guthrie’s on-line study guide (www.guthrietheater.org). In part it reflects Dowling’s belief that The Merchant of Venice feels like one of Mozart’s comic operas. He sees the resemblance particularly in the theatricality of the play’s comedic plot complications, such as the use of the caskets to determine Portia’s husband, the surrender and return of the rings, and the elopement of Jessica and Lorenzo. Placing the play in Mozart’s own time enabled Dowling to draw out these operatic parallels. More profoundly, Dowling argues that the eighteenth-century speaks meaningfully to our own time. First of all, he suggests that it was an era in which mercantile values had become well established and, as can happen now in our market-driven age, could override one’s ethical and moral considerations. Moreover, the era perceived itself as an age of enlightenment and is the primary source of many of our current ideas about law and equality. Nonetheless, these ideals co-existed with widely accepted bigotry and prejudice, a point whose present currency Dowling strongly emphasizes.
Although Dowling’s perception of The Merchant of Venice’s operatic qualities derives primarily from the love stories, his production’s focus was not on Portia and Bassanio. It centred on the plights of Antonio and Shylock. Richard Iglewski, who played Antonio, is a tall and somewhat heavy man. However, though physically imposing, his Antonio was quiet, largely non-assertive, and emotionally private. When he entered in the first scene, it was a time of carnival, with masked and cloaked masqueraders dancing and cavorting all around the stage. This was obviously a useful way to explain the masques and music that Shylock would warn Jessica against and that would provide the cover for her elopement with Lorenzo. What the display of carnival gaiety did immediately, though, was to provide a strong contrast to Antonio’s opening admission of a sadness that he could not explain. His friends Solanio (Michael Booth) and Salarino (Wayne A. Evenson) were enjoying a drink and the festivities; they clearly thought that he should lighten up. Like Antonio, they were middle-aged. The casting produced a manifest gap between Antonio’s generation and Bassanio’s. Antonio and his peers were wealthy, successful, and at the top of their careers. Others deferred to them, and they in turn expected such deference. Except for Antonio himself, they were complacent about their station in the community. Bassanio (Ron Menzel) and his companions Lorenzo (Matthew Amendt) and Gratiano (Lee Mark Nelson) were much younger, seeking wives and fortunes, and at the beginnings of their careers.
By the end of the first scene, the audience was shown that the cause of Antonio’s sadness is his love for Bassanio. His feelings were intimated by his evident joy at Bassanio’s arrival and by the alacrity with which he agreed to underwrite Bassanio’s voyage to woo Portia (Michelle O’Neill). However, Bassanio’s response to Antonio’s offer of financial backing made the point fully clear. He exuberantly grabbed Antonio and in his happiness spontaneously planted a resounding kiss of gratitude right on his lips. He then ran off the stage to locate someone who would lend the money. Standing alone onstage, Antonio gazed upward with the most forlorn of expressions: the kiss meant much more to him than it did to Bassanio, and he knew that the man he loves will never be his. The moment was repeated at the very end of the play, when everyone but Antonio exited the stage. Facing the audience, he again stared sadly upward and emitted a howl of sorrow. He was alone in his pain. No one else in Venice or Belmont perceived the sexual aspect of his love, and in modern terms, he would remain deeply closeted—and alone.
Robert Dorfman’s Shylock fully matched the complexity of Iglewski’s Antonio, but where Antonio’s emotions were carefully concealed, Shylock’s pain, anger, and hatred were never far from the surface. Dorfman succeeded in keeping him simultaneously a victim of bigotry and a revenger who has become villainous. He did not rant. Encountering Salarino and Solanio in a tavern where he had sat down to have a drink, he responded with his “Has not a Jew eyes?” speech without rising from his seat (3.1). His anger gave force to his speech, but it was a controlled anger. Had he succeeded in killing Antonio, he would have killed in cold blood. More overtly an outsider than Antonio, he too was alone when he left the stage, bereft even of the religion for which he had been persecuted.
Dowling’s comments in the study guide address the issue of whether The Merchant of Venice should still be produced, a question that academics might feel to be naive. He knows his audience, however. A number of local editorials and blogs reacted to the play’s anti-Semitism. These were not mindless or unthinking responses—they were by people who find the depiction of anti-Semitism reprehensible, even in a play that ultimately asks one to reflect on bigotry and its effects. Dowling’s answer is surely right; in a society that is far from free of bigotry, we need plays that force us to consider its consequences. The Merchant of Venice, he argues, is a plea for tolerance, and he forged a production that powerfully made this plea.
Responses to this piece intended for the
Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.