A Shakespeare play where a religious divide in the community is a major concern? Yeah, that’ll play just fine in Utah.
To be fair, the tension between Christians and Jews in The Merchant of Venice isn’t the sole focus of the play. But it does have a rather massive influence on the plot, thanks to the boiling hatred Shylock (Tony Amendola) has for Antonio (Gary Neal Johnson), and the the treatment Shylock receives from the Christian community of Venice. At the same time, Shakespeare manages to weave plenty of comedy and romance into his story as well, making The Merchant of Venice engaging on multiple levels.
The plot in a nutshell: The cash-poor Bassanio (Grant Goodman) needs money to travel and woo his beloved Portia (Emily Trask), and his friend Antonio borrows it for him from Shylock, expecting some of his overseas investments to pay off. When Antonio’s business fails, an angry Shylock—recently robbed by his daughter Jessica (Monica Lopez) and her Christian boyfriend Lorenzo (Daniel Molina)—decides to take out his frustrations by holding Antonio to his agreement to give up a pound of flesh.
When Bassanio hears of Antonio’s dilemma, he and his friend Gratiano (Ryan Imhoff) rush back to Venice to try and save him at his trial, with Portia and her maid Nerissa (Chelsea Steverson) in hot pursuit, with a plan to trick the court, Shylock and even her beloved by disguising herself as a male lawyer.
The production at this year’s Utah Shakespearean Festival soars on the strength of several stellar performances. Amendola is brilliant as Shylock, a man scorned by his community for his religion and his career as a money-man. Amendola’s emotional range is on full display as he veers from bold to angry to pitiful over the course of his time on stage. While Shylock is clearly the villain in Merchant, Amendola fleshes him out in such a way that he is a three-dimensional character the audience can feel sorry for as his world collapses around him.
In an utterly opposite, more joyous role, Trask’s Portia is sexy, witty and clearly smarter than all of the men in her world. The scenes where Portia is courted by the prince of Morocco and the Prince of Aragon were hilarious, and any time the darkness of Shylock’s fury and desire for Antonio’s blood threatened to steal the scene of the trial, Portia—even in drag—reestablished some light on stage. And her famous “mercy speech” (“the quality of mercy is not strained”) was a highlight in a show full of engaging speechifying.
Goodman’s Bassanio pales as a personality next to Imhoff’s Gratiano, a larger-than-life, gregarious figure who finds love himself with Nerissa. Likewise, Johnson’s Antonio has a hard time competing with the energy Amendola’s Shylock exudes at every turn. Even so, the overall strength of the large cast was the best of this year’s shows.
The set showcased a pastel touch in the Venice scenes, and the costumes by David Kay Mickelsen were incredibly ornate, from Shylock and Antonio’s robes to the Moroccans flowing garb to the Duke of Venice’s judge attire in the courtroom. Combined with Donna Ruzika’s bold lighting, Merchant offers a visual feast.
The Merchant of Venice is the most complex of the three Shakespeare plays at this year’s festival. While Macbeth is engaging, the murderous hubris of the title character is hard to relate to, and Much Ado About Nothing is an enjoyable, light comedy, Merchant leaves you unsettled. That’s no accident, because even though the “winners” of the showdown with Shylock leave the stage celebrating their victory and impending marriages, the audience’s final image is of a wailing Jessica, a woman torn between her Jewish heritage and the Christian world she’s entered through her love of Lorenzo, and of Antonio, reflecting silently on the play’s events.
It’s not a finale that sends the audience laughing and singing into the night. Rather, it’s cause for reflection on the tyranny of the majority and sexual politics. And that just might make The Merchant of Venice the best show at this year’s festival.
The Merchant of Venice runs at the Utah Shakespearean Festival through Sept. 3. Visit the USF Website for more information and show times.