Rachel Ditor is one brave director. Not only does she take on Shakespeare’s anti-Semitic The Merchant of Venice without apology, she revels in a sensual relationship between Antonio and his friend Bassanio.
The anti-Semitism within The Merchant of Venice is a difficult topic, but director Ditor has decided to let Shakespeare tell his story without any attempt at tempering that uncomfortable feeling when our modern sensibilities kick in. She wisely takes no sides here and does nothing to gloss over those moments that leave us squirming in our chairs. Richard Newman takes up Ditor’s mantel with an unrepentant Shylock, uncompromising in his portrayal of the moneylender who is determined to get his pound of flesh.
But while Ditor and Newman give us the straight goods on the Shylock story, it is in the less-than-straight goods between Charlie Gallant’s Bassanio and Duncan Fraser’s Antonio that held the most surprise. With an underlying sexual tension, Ditor had me wondering if the attraction between Bassanio and Antonio was mutual, or whether Bassanio was simply playing Antonio. It is not until the final moment of the play, as Bassanio is about to leave with Antonio looking longing after him, Ditor freezes the action for just a moment and we wait to see the truth.
Gallant’s Bassanio is complex, from all outwardly appearance the confident friend but inwardly knowing and calculating at his only chance is to marry the wealthy Portia (Lindsey Angell); he may play at the devoted friend to Antonio and loving husband to Portia but I couldn’t help but think he ultimately manages to screw both Antonio and Portia, making him an indiscriminate gigolo. Fraser, by contrast, gives his Antonio a melancholy that is deeply felt, coupled with an obvious yearning for Bassanio that could never be realized.
The wooing of Portia helps lighten the mood. First up is another hilarious performance from Luc Roderique as the Moroccan Prince. Roderique is proving himself quite the comedic Shakespearean actor after his hilarious performance in As You Like It. John Murphy gives an equally comical turn as the Spanaird Aragonian, whose lisping thick Spanish accent is made even funnier by Kayvon Khoshkam on a mandolin.
Ryan Beil, Shawn Macdonald and David Marr as friends to Antonio and Bassanio manage both the comedy and the tragedy in the roles their characters play in Shylock’s downfall. Macdonald and Marr even manage a couple of decent Italian opera pieces.
Amongst the women Luisa Jojic gives life to Shylock’s conflicted daughter Jessica and Lindsey Angell gives both an elegant grace to Portia as she faces her suitors and a determination as she and Nerissa (Amber Lewis) set out to save Antonio and test their husbands.
Despite all that it had going for it, there seemed a sluggishness to act one. At nearly one and a half hours at times the pacing made me feel all of it. Fortunately, the shorter act two flew by with great speed as if the cast had downed a couple Red Bulls during intermission.
Sound issues inside the new mainstage tent are still hampering actors here as they were with As You Like It. Although, given our different location in the theatre on Saturday night, it wasn’t quite as prevalent.
Having set the play in 1870s Italy, Mara Gottler is able to take full advantage giving us some beautiful gowns for the women and equally beautiful suits for the men.
The success of this production of The Merchant of Venice rests squarely on the shoulders of its director, Rachel Ditor. She should have taken a curtain call Saturday night.
By William Shakespeare. Directed by Rachel Ditor. A Bard on the Beach production. In repertory with As You Like It on the BMO Mainstage tent at Vanier Park through September 24, 2011. Visit http://www.bardonthebeach.org for tickets and information.