Bard on the Beach has taken on a modern rendition of The Merchant of Venice this year. Helmed by Nigel Shawn Williams and starring Olivia Hutt (Portia), Charlie Gallant (Bassanio), and Warren Kimmel as Shylock, the Merchant focused on the difficult themes of intolerance and patriarchy over it’s comedic attributes.
It’s certainly a controversial play, with the anti-Semitism directed at Shylock (Kimmel) who demands a pound of flesh from Antonio (Edward Foy) after he is unable to pay the bond on a 3,000 ducat loan. That loan is used for his friend Bassanio (Gallant) to marry a rich heiress Portia (Hutt), who herself has little choice in the matter. As the play continues, Shylock’s daughter elopes with Bassanio’s friend Lorenzo, and Portia disguises herself as a lawyer to argue on Antonio’s behalf.
Although Williams attempted to set this rendition of The Merchant of Venice in 2017, it came off as a lacklustre attempt. Productions usually look to change more than just the costumes to really transplant the story into the modern period, but unfortunately that didn’t happen here. This Merchant stuck too close to the original to bring enough modernity. Yes, a cell phone video and modern-Italian fashions create an outward look of the 21st century, but everything else felt unchanged, and less relevant than it could have been.
This production intended to provide a critique on capitalism, patriarchal authority, and intolerance in our modern world. Unfortunately, just like the modern presentation these ideas never fully came to fruition. The first half felt quite concise as it developed these themes, but after intermission it felt like everyone ran out of steam.
Merchant continued it’s shaky portrayal with an uneven cast. As the play went on, much of the rest of the cast turned to louder comments and brasher physical comedy to exert their meaning, rather than quieter, finely acted moments which would have meant more. Carmela Sison as Jessica looked lost alongside Chirag Naik’s Lorenzo, who seemed to lack any cohesive motivation for his character.
Kimmel mastered his role as Shylock, projecting a calm, balanced moneylender with clear intentionality. Unfortunately as the court made it’s decision to force Shylock to convert to Christianity, Williams did him no justice by making Shylock quickly accept his fate. Kimmel excelled against Gallant’s Bassanio and Edward Foy’s Antonio, and made fantastic work of his impressive speeches – specifically the classic “hath not a Jew eyes.” Gallant expressed a well-thought out portrayal of Bassanio, much different than his previous turn in the same role in Bard’s highly successful 2011 rendition. Olivia Hutt also captivated as Portia, balancing between sympathetic heiress in the first half and powerful, smart lawyer in the second.
Despite not being the best of the lot this season, The Merchant of Venice was still an interesting, engaging show with some powerful performances. If you couldn’t get enough of Kimmel as Shylock, then check back in September for Bard’s fifth production of the year – Shylock written by Mark Leiren-Young.