The Merchant of Venice has always been one of Shakespeare's prickliest plays, and the least popular Shakespeare booking on the Bar Mitzvah circuit. (The second-least popular? Richard III.) In the wrong hands it can devolve into a muddled, messy thing, with Shylock's existential ugliness matched against the Venetians' self-absorbed sadism to no particular point.
This is most definitely not the case in the Guthrie's fine new production, which brims with confidence and ease. The action, for you accounting majors who may have missed the play in school, revolves around a loan from Shylock (Robert Dorfman) to Bassanio (Ron Menzel). Bassanio needs cash to squire Portia (Michelle O'Neill), a young woman whose father has just died and left her his estate. The catch? Bassanio's friend Antonio (Richard S. Iglewski) guarantees the loan, and when ill fortune compels him to file Chapter 11, the bitter Shylock lays claim to his bond: a pound of Antonio's flesh. (Note to self: Open a Pawn America franchise on St. Mark's Square.)
There are the makings of a good buddy picture in this production, as Menzel and Iglewski seem entirely at ease with one another—the former soulful, the latter subdued and philosophical. Another profitable pairing is that between O'Neill and lady-in-waiting Nerissa (Sally Wingert). O'Neill's poise and Wingert's tongue-in-cheek irreverence crackle back and forth until each actress discovers something useful in the other's approach.
The action takes place on Riccardo Hernández's gleaming set, with metallic doors ringing the rear of the stage and the floor displaying an abstract design. The effect, in a show that uses a minimum of props, is a sense of austere opulence. Dorfman seems right at home in this sphere. His Shylock stands apart from the other players. He clearly understands his own motives in indulging a lust for revenge. And he stares resigned into the abyss of irony when it all goes wrong. In this sense, it's the most modern performance in the show.
Director Joe Dowling encourages the rest of the cast to explore the ambiguity in their characters. Menzel, for instance, suggests that good-guy Bassanio may also be on the make when he leans on an early line about Portia's wealth. And a couple of exchanges with Iglewski suggest there may be a very good reason why Antonio hasn't gotten hitched.
I'm usually a teetotaler when I cover shows, even at venues that offer drinks. But about five minutes into Jake-a-Dee Myer, I was laughing so hard that all bets were off, and I was running a tab.
Lisa Clair and Adam Collignon wrote this piece of uproarious filth, and they assail a variety of demented and unclean characters. Collignon is Jake-a-Dee, whose job is to shovel shit (indeed, he flings plastic turds into the audience with glum resignation at regular intervals). Jake-a-Dee launches a quest to make his life less shitty, which brings him into conflict with his Mamma-dee (Clair), an Old Guy (um, Clair) who gives crap advice, and a phallic-headed Beast (you guessed it, Clair). What does a man need to do to get a little redemption, anyway?
There's practically nothing this show won't try, and so before the night is finished we've had musical numbers, videos, and puppetry. If you've been looking for the secret intersection of Pere Ubu and Pee Wee's Playhouse...well, here it is: maniacal, scatological, and full of twisted wit.
There's some shit we won't eat, Hunter Thompson famously declared. Okay, but for this night only, why not try just a bite?