SALT LAKE CITY — One of Shakespeare’s comedies written at the end of sixteenth century, The Merchant of Venice follows Bassanio, a bachelor who borrows money from his friend Antonio in order to court his love, Portia. To finance Bassanio, Antonio accepts a loan from Shylock, a Jew, on the condition that if he fails to return Shylock the money, Shylock can exact a pound of his flesh. When Antonio cannot present the money, a courtroom drama ensues that Portia, dressed as a lawyer, resolves by absolving Antonio of his debt to Shylock. Directed by Elise C. Hanson and Jeff L. Stinson, The Merchant of Venice is a tale of revenge, greed, and forgiveness.
While some troupes revere Shakespeare’s works as scripture, others treat it like one big sex joke. Which approach Shakespeare intended for his plays is ambiguous since they are at once rich with wisdom and rife with bawdiness. New World Shakespeare Company’s (NWSC) The Merchant of Venice embraces Shakespeare’s irreverence and profundity, bringing out his innuendos with sexual gestures, as well as paying due respect to his intricate language. If there are suggestive pelvic thrusts, then there are also glimpses into the beauty of Shakespeare’s dialogue, like Sydney Lorraine Vance’s (Portia) simple execution of the, “The quality of mercy,” monologue. Jeffrey Owens’s (Shylock) moving monologue about the humanity of Jewish people also comes to mind.
Shakespeare wrote for the groundlings, and this production’s acting was mostly catered to the groundlings. Whereas some companies make Shakespeare the pinnacle of avant-garde drama, NWSC embraces easy theatrical gimmicks, like boob-grabs and actors running on-stage out of breath for no other reason except that it is entertaining. Here, a night out with Shakespeare is not a pearl-necklace affair. But, then again, it wasn’t in Will’s day either.
To be fair, there were also some fine performances. Cami Rozanas (Nerissa) pulled me into her character with her consistent winks to the audience and the fun-mom energy she provided for Portia. Meighan Smith (The Duke) spoke with the clear diction necessary for Shakespeare and just the right amount of emotional showiness for stage acting. I also found the comedy satisfying as Portia shamed Bassanio (Jonah Kirkhart) for parting with her ring.
The modern twist that the NWSC brought to the show revolved around high fashion—a nod to Italy’s haute couture and, according to the director’s note, the characters’ “dogged pursuit of status.” In between some scenes, the actors would walk out in their bizarre costumes and makeup as if on a runway, strutting to club music and flirting with the audience under multicolored lighting. I did not read the director’s note before the show, and the show on its own did not communicate to me that the runway bits were more than the actors indulging in the spotlight.
Instead of commenting on haute couture, the gaudy make-up and costuming distracted from the actors’ performances. I thought the clownish diamonds around Owen’s eyes detracted from his grounded portrayal of Shylock. The characters’ physical appearance, intended to elucidate their obsession with wealth, hindered my understanding of their motivations. Furthermore, the costumes did not read as fully committed to high culture or any time period in particular. Prince Balenciaga’s (Carly Welch) fancy black tights ended in running shoes, and I wondered if Lorenzo’s (Mandi Titcomb) smartwatch was an anachronism. I will admit that the cast’s unique appearances added visual interest to a wordy, slower-paced show: if I didn’t understand what Antonio (Jon Turner) was saying, I could blankly stare at the gold-star stickered to his cheek and feel I was somehow still part of the action.
If the costuming and makeup failed to enhance my understanding of the story, then the lighting by David Bruner felt like another design element that was liable to throw me for a loop at a moment’s notice. There were moments when the lighting drew attention to itself instead of immersing me in the world of the show, such as the abrasive light changes when Portia rejected suitors in the form of dolls.
As soon as I accepted the fact that this show refused to take anything—including itself—too seriously, it was entertaining enough to make a dense text enjoyable. In her online masterclass, Helen Mirren advises audiences to not be snooty as they discriminate between “high” and “low” forms of theatre—between Shakespeare and showgirls as she puts it. NWSC’s The Merchant of Venice occupies a strange and sometimes disorienting place between Shakespeare and showgirls. That is, until I remembered that Shakespeare wasn’t high-brow in his day to begin with.