The Merchant of Venice.
Presented by Seattle Shakespeare Company at the Center House Theatre, Seattle, WA. June 4-28, 2009. Directed by George Mount. Set by L. B. Morse. Costumes by Doris Black. Lighting by Roberta Russell. Sound by Robertson Witmer. Choreography by Jennifer Havlin. Music by Jesse Sykes and Phil Wandscher. With Michael Winters (Prospero), Peter Dylan O'Connor (Caliban), Hana Lass (Ariel), Carolyn Marie Monroe (Miranda), Jeffrey Frieders (Ferdinand), Todd Licea (Antonio), Richard Nguyen Sloniker (Sebastian), James Dean (Gonzalo), Bradley Goodwill (Alonzo), Eric Ray Anderson (Stephano), and Kerry Ryan (Trinculo).
Seattle Shakespeare Company's spring and summer productions, The Merchant of Venice and The Tempest, featured strong directorial choices, excellent individual performances, and generally fine ensemble acting from guest directors and Equity and non-Equity actors. The company also continually found inventive ways to use its dismal acting space, the Center House Theatre, located in the basement of the building. Oh for a new theatre!
For Merchant two large doors upstage opened into a cafe with two octagonal tables center stage. Antonio, et al., were stock-market mavens of the Roaring Twenties, dressed in three piece suits and enjoying a drink after work. The conversation was loud and well-oiled, with Gratiano the loudest talker and heaviest drinker. Bassanio, much younger than Antonio, had obviously rehearsed his plea for funds to visit a lady "richly left"; he was just as obviously conscious of his past mis-management of Antonio's generosity. Antonio's angry "Fie, fie" at Solanio's suggestion that he may be in love hinted at a possibly repressed homosexual desire for Bassanio, but Antonio was more annoyed than sad at Bassanio's request for more travel funds. Only in act five did Antonio seem truly sad once he realized that Bassanio was finally lost to him.
Portia drank some of the remaining booze while mocking her previous wooers, as if wealth privileged ridicule. Sarcasm also marked Shylocks initial dialogue with Bassanio. Charles Leggett, dressed in traditional Jewish gabardine and yarmulke, played Shylock initially as self-confident and even jaunty in public; he fully enjoyed dallying with Bassanio's nervousness at having to come to "the dog Jew" to borrow money. Yet Leggett's aside "How like a fawning publican he looks!" revealed a fierce loathing once Antonio entered the care. Leggett rose from the table and spat his hatred directly to spectators, as if to justify to us his determination to "feed fat [his] ancient grudge." Leggett's large, shaking body was consumed by hatred, and his choice of a Shylock beyond reconciliation with the Christians only deepened the ironic humor and offered friendship in his subsequent dialogue with Antonio. During "Signor Antonio, many a time and oft" Leggett strode among the tables, gestured nonchalantly to his "guests" whom he sensed he could now master, and from "Fair sir," down to "lend you thus much moneys" Shylocks hatred from earlier in the scene intensified the terrible irony of his being asked to lend money to one who had spat on him. Leggett drove these words up close into Mark Chamberlain's Antonio, and Chamberlain, as gifted and energetic an actor as Leggett, rose briskly on Antonio's "I am as like to call thee so again," thus crystallizing the malignant hatred that propelled them towards a brilliant staging of 4.1.
Given Leggett's commanding presence on stage, his Shylock dominated this production. He entered after 2.9, which ends with Portia's "Bassanio, Lord Love, if thy will it be!" looking for his daughter, and his anguished scream when he realized that she had fled ended the first half. The contrast between Portia's wishful line and Shylocks rage was startling. In 3.1 Salerio and Solanio, both played by non-equity actors, were as vicious as any two performers of these minor roles I have ever seen. Shylock decided to take a pound of Antonio's flesh during these twin bigots' relentless Jew-baiting. Salerio's claim that "There is more difference between thy flesh and hers than between jet and ivory.... " was the insult Shylock could not tolerate: pushing chairs and tables out of his way Leggett thundered his rebuke "Hath not a Jew eyes" not to spectators but directly at these mouth-pieces for Christian hypocrisy left behind in Venice while Bassanio, Gratiano, and Lorenzo were off chasing pretty ladies in far away places. How ironic that these petty bigots should finally push Shylocks hatred towards murder! The vitriolic hatred Langs was able to coax from all three actors in this scene not only exemplified the production's excellent ensemble work but also solidified spectators' image of Shylock from 1.3 as a man capable of butchering another human being. Tubal's words immediately following were indeed daggers; Shylock bent over at the loss of his ducats and Leah's ring, yet eagerly thanked God for Antonio's losses. In SSC's cramped theatre, the proximity of a man driven mad by racial hatred who really did want his daughter dead at his foot and who did want to carve out a pound of another man's flesh was frightening.
Antonio entered 4.1 carrying a Bible and sat far stage right, while Shylock sat downstage and, with his back to the court, chanted in Hebrew "The Mourners' Kaddish" as he sharpened his knife. On "More than a lodged hate and a certain loathing I bear Antonio ..." Bassanio and Gratiano rushed to attack Shylock and had to be restrained by thuggish cops. Given Shylock's garb, Portia's question "and which the Jew?" was obviously nasty, yet despite her loathing and mockery of her foreign wooers in 1.2 her appeal to mercy seemed genuine, rather than a trick to trap yet another alien. Portia delivered her sermon to the court and to the audience, thus drawing us into the proceedings and asking us to join in her judgment.
Shylocks virulent "I crave the law, / The penalty and forfeit of my bond" hurled the scene towards its terrifying climax. Naked to the waist and roped to a chair, Antonio sat bolt upright. Bassanio's and Gratiano's dismissive references to their wives, while comic given their presence in court, enraged Shylock's memory of his daughter, and it was clearly this memory that propelled him to fulfill his bond. In an amazingly intense moment, Shylock slowly bent over Antonio's bare chest. With the knife raised high in his right hand, Shylock gingerly moved with his left hand from in front of Antonio's heart a pendant Cross, a symbol of Christ's idealized mercy that this Christian community had abjured throughout the play. Leggett smiled as Chamberlain shook, and with superb timing that evoked gasps from spectators Portia cried "Tarry a little" just as Shylock's knife came down. Leggett stopped just above Chamberlain's writhing chest. Shylock froze, paralyzed by references to the law that he knew he had violated. After the Duke's disposal of his goods, Shylock slowly, painfully shuffled through the audience stage left as the court's Christians cheered. Our acquiescence in these proceedings as Shylock moved through us intensified one of the most painful theatrical exits I have ever seen. As the court emptied, Bassanio picked up Shylocks knife where he had dropped it and of course Portia's money bags. Souvenirs!
Candles transformed the courtroom into Portia's estate, where Jessica had little interest in Lorenzo's romantic tales; her mind was elsewhere. Atop one of the octagonal tables, Portia and Nerissa gleefully mocked their wayward husbands with tales of infidelity, while Jessica moved far stage right at mention of the "special deed of gift." While Lorenzo read the letter, she slowly chanted Kaddish. As the reunited couples danced to sweet music, Jessica and Antonio stood alone stage right. Only at the last second of the dance did Jessica gently embrace Lorenzo.
For The Tempest set designer L. B. Morse created an open space that was at once the interiority of the sinking ship and Prospero's study. Hana Lass, a sexy Ariel dressed in a low-cut black halter, black tights, sheer black skirt, elbow-length black lace gloves, black veil, and with multi-colored ribbons in her hair, entered from upstage center carrying a toy sailing ship that she placed center stage. She then climbed a rope downstage right from where she directed the storm. Amid shouts and thunder the panicked passengers clung to ropes suspended all over the stage and then scattered as the bark sank. Descending from the rope after the sinking, Ariel picked up the toy ship and handed it to Prospero who had entered from upstage center; the ship and its men were now safely in his hands. Dressed in a long white shift, gold patterned silk cape, sporting a bejeweled leather strap over his left shoulder, and carrying a mace, Prospero accepted the ship and moved stage right to his library, a stack of books to which he often returned when he required some of his most potent art.
As in John Langs's Merchant, here director George Mount anchored his production on distinct choices regarding the play's major characters. Michael Winters's Prospero was a fiercely angry old man ravaged by memory and the evil within his own family, but also a doting father desperate for Miranda to find love amid a world he knew was violent and ruthless. As he recounted his history and named the conspirators they emerged from doors upstage right and left. His memory of the conspirators' perfidy incensed him, and Winters's rising voice, reddened face, and shaking body consumed by rage superbly communicated the depth of the anger that he would have to shed were he to forgive Antonio et al. Despite Ariel's excellent performance of his bidding, he exploded in rage when she requested her liberty, as if any challenge to his autocratic power or his scheme were tantamount to treason. Winters's Prospero was not only furious at the world's evil but also determined that its correction should come as he saw fit.
Mount conceived Peter Dylan O'Connor's Caliban as a generic image of human evil; there was no hint here whatsoever of the neo-colonial reading of the play. Caliban was more sexual and physical monster than displaced Native: a large yellow cod-piece; a mostly bald head with long strands of thick black hair streaming from the top; brown leather sleeveless vest; heavily painted striped arm and facial markings; and black leather pants with white stripes resembling a tiger's markings (perhaps all suggesting the "stripes" [lashes] with which Prospero threatens him in 1.2).When Prospero violently summoned Caliban, "What ho! Slave! Caliban!", he entered from behind the stage left pillar chained to a rope, eerily suggesting Beckett's Lucky from Waiting for Godot. At Prospero's mention of Caliban's attempted rape of Miranda, Caliban lunged at Miranda and was stopped only by the chain. Miranda's "thy vile race" thus suggested not a Native American but rather an image of barbarism at the heart of humanity which the two sets of conspirators embodied and which drove Prospero's rage throughout the play.
The aristocratic conspirators entered in Edwardian formality: satin evening jackets in black and red, top hats, vests, gold watch chains, stiff collars, and paisley ties. Gonzalo, in red cape, wire-rim spectacles, and French beret was the portly, scholarly Professor Emeritus who lectured unabashedly on his utopian dream. Their comic counterparts, Stephano and Trinculo, were hilarious. Stephano wore a chef's hat and, like Gonzalo, wore a red (though tattered) jacket and sported glasses, so that his inebriated mockery of good government--a bottle and a king's crown made of wooden staves and rope--neatly ridiculed Gonzalo's utopian vision and comically reinforced Prospero's severe anger at humankind's debauched, relentless pursuit of violence. Kerry Ryan's Trinculo was painted red--large clown-face circles on her bubbly cheeks--and her bodily entanglements with Caliban under the cloak were sexually quite provocative. Throughout the middle scenes Prospero watched all from upstage center, sitting on a small raised platform, wearing his magic cape and holding his mace. He occasionally lowered his head in sadness, dispatching Ariel when necessary, seeing no other way to save Alonzo's life or to frustrate the drunken marauders. This staging reinforced a necessary point of this play: Prospero knows that his most potent art, which he relinquishes at play's end, can only temporarily prevent human evil here on his magical isle, and when he drowns his book he is releasing his only child into a dangerous world where the spirits of Antonio and Caliban forever dwell.
Several fine directorial touches marked the production. Caliban cried when he described the music he sometimes hears, suggesting perhaps a glimmer of hope even in man's beastliness. Miranda and Ferdinand were hopelessly in love and wonderfully tender with each other, especially when they "changed eyes" under Prospero's careful watch. They just barely kissed, then pulled away, then kissed again, and then yelped at their suddenly discovered physical passion. Prospero nearly had to call up horses to part them. Prospero's vain art was itself magically imagined. The banquet in 3.3 was shapes of fruit flashed on the back wall of the stage, and as Harpy Ariel drew one of the ship's sails across the stage to terrify the "three men of sin." At the end of 4.1 Prospero exploded in fury; remembering the foul conspirators who wanted to steal his books, rape his daughter, usurp his island, and murder him. Prospero's following speech was indeed vexed; as his anger within the lovely images grew, Winters emphasized the mortality we all face: "We are such stuff as dreams are made on." However one might want to impose a neo-colonial reading on this play, Winters's powerful reaction to his own vision of mortality amid relentless human evil rendered him a truly sympathetic figure. His Prospero was an old man driven into rage not only by his looming encounter with Antonio but also by Caliban's murderous and rapacious plot.
Mount's direction created a remarkably moving conclusion. Ariel's assurance that were she human she would weep at the distracted "prisoners," and especially at Gonzalo's tears, drove Prospero himself to weep. Winters bent over in pain at Gonzalo's suffering, but also presumably, given Winters's portrayal of Prospero throughout, at his own inability to feel pity amid his continuing anger. Even his determination to pursue the "rarer action" was still at this point an emotional struggle. Winters's rendition of Prospero's farewell to the elements was stunning. Standing amid his charmed circle Prospero did not just recall the "elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves"; he saw them. All that he had commanded was there with him for the last time, and the rising tension and volume of his majestic aria seemed part Prospero's final assertion of his power; part wish that if he evoked the elements passionately enough he would not have to relinquish that power; and part deep regret that in order to forgive Antonio and try to right the world for Miranda and Ferdinand he must leave that charmed circle and drown his magic book.
Recall that Prospero forgives Antonio twice: the first time is when he and the others are still within Prospero's magic circle, before "Their understanding / Begins to swell." After this initial forgiveness, to which Antonio cannot respond, Prospero did not don his "hat and rapier" as the script indicates, but rather appeared shorn of his gold cape and mace and wearing only his plain white smock: an old man in humble attire. Prospero embraced Gonzalo, chastised Alonso and Sebastian, and then turned to Antonio, who stood, shaking, downstage left. Prospero spat out "For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother / Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive / Thy rankest fault." His final anger spent, Prospero tentatively moved to embrace Antonio, who slowly backed away upstage left and stood alone. For several seconds Winters stood hunched over, his bent torso speaking volumes. He would shortly send his only child back into a world in which treacherous men cannot accept forgiveness.
The joy of Prospero's revealing Miranda and Ferdinand playing chess behind one of the ship's sails was tempered by his stern warning to Miranda about the "brave new world" she was about to enter; as he spoke Prospero glanced towards Antonio. After dealing with the drunken, horse-piss smelling Caliban gang and sending the "thing of darkness" to tidy up, Prospero released Ariel by simply lifting her veil on "Then to the elements / Be free, and fare thou well." As if prompted by the words "free" and "well" as he started upstage, Prospero glanced stage-left at Antonio and stopped. Antonio slowly began moving towards Prospero, and in another marvelously pregnant silence they met center stage, embraced, and wept. Like Ariel, both men were now free.
As Antonio left to join his companions, Prospero picked up the toy ship that Ariel had placed center stage. Turning around, he spoke "Please you, draw near" to us. Holding the small ship, wearing only his simple white smock, his strength "most faint," Prospero begged from us the forgiveness he had now successfully bestowed on Antonio. Prospero had said earlier that every third thought would be of his grave, and as he asked to be set free by our indulgence white lights flooded the stage. He drew a deep, amplified breath, and in his shroud he seemed to pass into another world.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||The Tempest|
|Author:||Shurgot, Michael W.|
|Article Type:||Theater review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2009|
|Previous Article:||Much Ado about Nothing.|
|Next Article:||The Winter's Tale.|