Thursday, September 23, 2010

Theater in Ashland, 3: The Merchant of Venice

Ashland, Oregon—
SO MUCH JUSTIFICATION for producing The Merchant of Venice was trotted out by the direction here at Oregon Shakespeare Festival that I was worried about what would be done to Shakespeare's marvelous, problematic comedy. It's directed by Bill Rauch, the company's creative director, who in this year's Hamlet uses hip-hop and technology to make Shakespeare "relevant" to a hoped-for younger audience. Of course one understands the company's nervousness in this epoch of political correctness: still, it's Shakespeare's play, written in his time, and reflecting (I say) an essentially evenhanded dissent from the complacent righteousness of both Christianity and Judaism: merely producing it today, faithfully to the text, shouldn't really offend any thinking playgoer.

And it turned out the production, on the outdoor "Elizabethan Stage," was pretty straightforward. Like the previous night's Henry IV, Merchant began with a little vignette snipped from the trial scene, spotlit and amplified, as if the audience needs to be put in the mood, or told what the nut of the play is: this is dispensable, but essentially harmless.

From there on it was an unremarkable production, unexceptionably cast for the most part, thoughtful, never strident, the currently fashionable latent-homosexuality theme nudged but not boldfaced, Shylock's hatred of the Christians clearly motivated.

I was troubled throughout by the diction. Some of Shakespeare's most poetic language is in this play; too often it was spoken as if it were doggerel. It's one thing to portray Portia's exotic suitors — the Princes of Morocco and "Arragon" — as clowns; it's another to make Gratiano out a fool. Far too much of the expository first three acts suffered from off-hand diction, often nearly inaudible even only ten rows from the stage.

The famous courtroom scene opening Act 4, though, brought the whole play to life. Anthony Heald's Shylock was ultimately outrageous in his demand, but never hateful. Jonathan Haugen's Antonio was dignified in his helpless resignation. And Vilma Silva, whose Portia seemed out of kilter in earlier scenes, was eloquent, her timing nicely calculated.

For me the proof of The Merchant of Venice is the opening of the last act. Even here the opening lines —
The moon shines bright. In such a night as this,
When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees,
And they did make no noise…
were delivered as trivial singsong; Lorenzo and Jessica never had seemed aware of the magic of either their romance or the language expressing it. But when the irresistible continuation began to unfold —
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears. Soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.
There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
but in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eye'd cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls,
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly closed it in, we cannot hear it…
Even here, Lorenzo punctuates "muddy vesture of decay" with a distracting mimed reference to physical love-making. But soon enough the musicians began to provide a soft, lyrical background; Roberta Burke (Fatima) singing softly to guitar and lute, Portia and Nerissa (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) quietly counterpointing their own lines in the distance house left. The effect was magical, even persuading Daniel Marmon's Lorenzo and Emily Knapp's Jessica. And me.

The Merchant of Venice, through Oct. 10; Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland; tel. (541) 482-4331

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