If my previous piece on Cardinal’s Merchant of Venice featuring an all-female cast seemed to be motivated by doubt, my review is only motivated by praise. Director Randy White and the talented cast of actors created a lively, thought provoking version of one of Shakespeare’s more problematic plays.
White’s choice of an all-female cast was very successful. On our way out of the show, my husband and I overheard two old men saying that it was a good show, but it was weird that the characters were all played by women. I completely disagree. At the beginning, I was hyper-aware that all of the people onstage were female, but soon I just saw the characters. Training with movement coaches helped the women physically embody masculinity. The 1920’s clothing and setting emphasized a certain androgyny. All of it was so natural, that I had to sometimes forcibly remind myself all the actors were women.
The cast was fantastic. I adored Yadira Correa’s brash and vulgar Gratiano, I fell in love with Caitlan Taylor’s Bassiano, and I laughed heartily at Nicole Bruce’s antics as Gobbo. They had an impressive and natural grasp of the Shakespearean text. I almost half expect to hear Leslie Ann Handelman (Portia) or Liz Pazik (Shylock) using perfect iambic pentameter while ordering beer and burgers after the show.
Unlike some actors that just perform on the stage, those in Merchant truly inhabited the space. There was such comfort and ease in their movements, expressions, and interactions that I almost forgot I was watching people perform a role. Instead, they just seemed to be living their lives in front of us.
In the past year and a half, I have seen three separate productions of Merchant, and I have to say that this one was my favorite. This is not light praise because the two other productions were created by two powerhouses in world of Shakespearean theater: The Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Can a professional production put on by a small theater company in the little town of Bloomington, IN, really measure up against these big name, big budget productions from the world leaders in Shakespeare theatrical performance? The answer is a resounding, yes!
The key to the production’s success was its lack of heavy handed morality. The other two plays contained violent images of Venetian Jews, Shylock especially, being pushed, beaten, and spit upon. Right from the very beginning, these productions labelled the Venetians as the villains. The audience was taught to hate them. They were irredeemable, and the comic plot of the play seemed a sick and twisted joke that made our hatred of them burn hotter (especially in the Globe version, where Shylock was portrayed as a highly sympathetic character).
In making the audience hate the Venetians, these productions distanced themselves from the problematic anti-Semitism of the piece; they condemned the characters to just being racist, anti-Semitic villains. These productions clearly pronounced the Venetians as “wrong and undesirable,” and in doing so, they created a huge distance between the Venetians and the audience. Audiences could easily sit back and assure themselves that they were nothing like those characters, so full of hate, prejudice, and xenophobia. They comforted themselves with the idea that they were better than Antonio (with his distrust and physical repulsion of the Jews), Gratiano (with his anti-Semitic racial slurs and hate speech), and even Portia (with her casual racism towards her suitors). These productions didn’t challenge the audience; they comforted and assured them that they are good people because they judge the Venetians actions as devoid of compassion and morality.
Cardinal’s version of the play creates a more nebulous sense of right and wrong. As an audience, we did not see any overt, unprovoked violence against Shylock or the Jewish community of the play. That is not to say that the racism did not exist. Antonio’s face and body language displayed his disgust for Shylock, his religion, and his business practices. Gratiano’s words still rang with hate and prejudice, and Portia still found many of her suitors abhorrent because of national prejudice and racial stereotypes. Yet, none of these characters were outright villains. Shylock wasn’t wholly sympathetic, either. His hatred seemed to be just as ingrained as the Venetians. They were all people with preferences, prejudices, and preconceived ideas. They were just as human as the audience members.
In filling the stage with fallible humans and not heroes and villains, Cardinal’s production pulled the audience into the world onstage. The audience had a harder time distancing themselves from the characters, but instead they could see themselves in Antonio, Bassanio, Portia, and Shylock. We saw the good and bad within them; we saw the good and bad in each of us as well.
I can’t speak for everyone there, but I know that this production of Merchant made me turn a critical eye on myself. The characters in the play believe they are good people, but yet their hate and prejudice, whether overt or instinctual, complicates their goodness. I too believe I am a good person, but through them I can see that a person’s goodness can be clouded by prejudices of which he or she may not even be aware. The play forces me to turn my critical eye inward and evaluate the prejudices that may cloud my own goodness for we are neither heroes nor villains. We are flawed humans who must constantly struggle to better ourselves, and productions like Cardinal’s Merchant of Venice help us do just that.