- Merchant Venice, and: Merchant of Venice
Because of the modern history of anti-Semitism and the play's role in it, directors are often reluctant to let The Merchant of Venice speak for itself on stage. This holds true even for concept-averse directors who are thoroughly convinced that the play is not anti-Semitic. They might invoke Shakespeare's universality to suggest that he saw through the destructive intolerance within all of us, but they will also fear, understandably, that the play could enflame the very prejudices it is thought to expose. The play certainly provides opportunities for examining prejudices (and ourselves), especially in the safe remove of a study, but in the theatre, reflection can easily be trumped by a dramatic rhythm that sets up the humiliation of a Jew as the springboard for comic celebration. Hence [End Page 75] great pains are often taken to ensure that the production sends the right message about tolerance and self-examination. But what kind of a production will best deliver this message—the one that speaks more, or less, for itself? A comparison of two very different productions by Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and The Atlanta Shakespeare Company can help us address, if not answer, this question.
Chicago Shakespeare performs in a lavish "courtyard theatre" with plush seats and elegantly crafted wooden galleries that surround a spacious thrust stage. This playing space is only one part of its seven-story, glass-enclosed complex on Chicago's Navy Pier. The list of patrons who made the substantial donations to build the complex is staggering. The company is composed almost entirely of Equity actors. One might say that its Merchant for the 05–06 season was a perfect fit for this theatre. And that was precisely the problem. In its look and feel, the production was modern and stylish, but with a certain slick eclecticism that often felt more corporate than hip. Some of this was deliberate. Shylock dressed like a Wall Street banker, and our first view of Belmont presented Portia in the designer-chic dress of rich leisure (trim gold jacket over maroon slacks with a golden chain slung through the belt loops) with Nerissa as her personal assistant, holding a ledger. We were to understand that Portia was a child of mercantile privilege. But this sleek look extended to other design elements as well and sometimes took on the glossy polish of Madison Avenue: smoky fog drifting down from the ceiling of an upstage café in which the first scene was set; stage movements between scenes, choreographed to sirens and street noise, that had a little touch of Harold Prince; a stagy tableau of a Muslim, a Christian, and a Jewish pair (Shylock and Jessica) in prayer in three different spots.
Matching this general polished feel was the production's determination to deliver a moral tale on modern anti-Semitism that felt not probing and challenging, but rather too corporate as well—inoffensive and easy on the moral senses in its reliance on facile oppositions. Mike Nussbaum's Shylock was a...