Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s The Merchant of Venice

[The preview for this review is here.]

Caught Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production of The Merchant of Venice last week. Of the three ASP productions I’ve seen thus far this one was probably my least favorite. Upon reflection I think a fair amount of the problem may have been the space, which was significantly bigger than the Harvard Square location where I’d seen them before. The theater, in the basement of Midway Studios at Fort Point Channel, is interesting in and of itself, with a balcony and a small spiral staircase, but its size proved to be unwieldy. Although the direction made fairly good use of the mostly bare stage, the actors, particularly the younger ones, had a tendency to shout rather than project, and overplay their roles rather than focus on the text in the way I’d seen in their more intimate settings. Part of this I think is also due to the post-Baz Luhrmann tendency for actors to deliver Shakespeare in a college frat boy sort of way, relying far too much on broad physical gestures and CON-STANT STRES-SES ON EV-ERY SYL-LA-BLE.

As for the production itself, in general I agree with The Globe’s comment that “the scenes never quite connect” and that as a whole the production is “too disjointed to be effective”. (Although I disagree with Byrne’s comment that “the subplots featuring Portia’s suitors gambling for her hand in marriage and Shylock’s daughter, Jessica (Sarah Augusta), eloping with Lorenzo (Jason Bowen) feel less like romances and more like two more business transactions,” because I found that choice actually helped unify the production.) My main gripe is that despite each scene working fairly well, somehow the overall motivations and emotional connection to the drama get completely lost. Antonio and Bassanio’s friendship, upon which the conflict of the entire play is based, is far too understated, as is Shylock’s final bitter defeat in the climactic courtroom scene; and in this production the moment where Bassanio risks all to win Portia’s hand in marriage is completely devoid of tension. The subplot involving Portia and Nerissa fooling their husbands ends the play merrily enough, but again without much connection to the rest of the play.

Despite the overall lack of focus, there was more than enough to keep one’s attention and a fair number of interesting touches. I generally don’t like underscoring in plays, but there was some nice sound design, including the soft sound of coins clinking during some scenes. Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, was directed as very young which makes her betrayal seem convincingly naive, and Jeremiah Kissel has deservedly received unanimous praise for his portrayal of Shylock. Kissel’s seething, manic portrayal is both sympathetic and tragic, and his hatred and lust for vengeance are compellingly repellent. His scene with Tubal is certainly the most emotionally honest moment in the entire production. I was a bit disappointed in Sarah Newhouse as Portia, and to a lesser extent Marianna Bassham as her maid Nerissa: I’d seen them in a previous production, and they just didn’t seem to bring enough unique characterization to their roles here.

The group has archived a fair number of reviews of the production on their website, including The Phoenix’s and EDGE Boston’s. And if you’re looking for more info on the play and its historical context, Wikipedia, as usual, doesn’t disappoint.

So even though it’s not a home run, ASP still provides a worthy take on Shakespeare’s classic and some fine acting, particularly thanks to Kissel as Shylock. The production is playing through December 7, so you still have a few more days to catch it.

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