Pricked and bleeding
The Merchant of Venice
The Grange Performing Arts Center3823 V St.
Sacramento, CA 95817
The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s trickiest plays to produce, which is probably why it isn’t done too often.
Merchant has familiar Bard touchstones—complicated courtships, hidden identities, posse bromances, long-held resentments and a memorable passage (Portia’s “The quality of mercy is not strained” speech).
But it also has challenges that make it a problematic play, including one of Shakespeare’s most enigmatic characters—the Jewish moneylender, Shylock—as well as language and references to Jews that are anti-Semitic and jarring to hear within modern societal sensitivities. Sometimes Shylock is portrayed as a villain, sometimes as a scorned man and sometimes a combination of both, but as a central character, he remains a racial stereotype whose ultimate punishment is renouncing his Judaism and being baptized as a Christian.
It’s a dicey Shakespeare selection, one that Imprint Theater Works has chosen as its debut performance. The new company includes veterans from Resurrection Theatre, which has a history of successful Shakespeare adaptations, so Merchant is a natural transition and bold move for Imprint artistic director and Resurrection alumna Alysha S. Krumm.
There are so many good aspects of this production, most notably strong performances from the leads—including Ryan Snyder as Antonio, Elizabeth Holzman as Portia and Brennan Villados as Bassanio—and best intentions from cast and crew. The staging at the Grange Performing Arts Center gives it an intimate feel that draws the audience in.
It’s set in modern times, with homeless people sprawled on sidewalks as corporate three-piece-suiters discuss money deals. Sometimes this adds to the contemporary feel and subject matter, though at times is off-putting when juxtaposed with the dated language and references.
But some of the problems with this adaptation—and the play itself—are the abrupt tonal shifts from romantic comedy to tragic drama, from intense courtroom scenes to silly romantic high jinks. And then we have Shylock, with Jeffrey Lloyd Heatherly trying his best to humanize the character, but he’s burdened both with his own character’s dialogue and the racist attacks on his character. He’s forced to fine-line juggling between sympathy and outrage. It’s a challenge Heatherly faces with much talent, but in the end, it’s not enough to overcome the stereotypes.