Mr. Griset has added to the chorus praising “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” with his review this week. Sycamore Rouge kicked off its season last weekend with the Langston Hughes-oriented joint, “Simply Heavenly,” that received a less than stellar assessment from Ms. Haubenstock.
The folks at Henley Street are initiating what sounds like an intriguing series of talk-backs this weekend and their “Merchant of Venice” is a great show to kick it off with. This is a show that almost demands conversation and processing. I really admire James Ricks and his company for choosing this show to produce and then really committing to a serious re-imagining of the work by placing it in a modern context.
My review in Style is going to be fairly short – once upon a time I would have had 500 to 600 words for a review. This one had to be trimmed to 350. It’s the sad reality of print journalism these days and particularly brutal when you are trying to cover any Shakespeare, let alone this Shakespeare. So I may talk about “Merchant” a couple of times in this space to flesh out some of my thoughts.
First off, it’s kind of astounding that the show will be running through the Jewish high holy days (Happy Rosh Hashanah, y’all!) The anti-Semitism in the play is bracing, there’s no getting around it. Mr. Ricks has said he has put the most clear anti-Semitic sentiments in the mouths of the lowest class characters, making the issue a bit more about class rather than overall cultural prejudice. I don’t know that this choice comes across so clearly, particularly in the modern context where, even though there are clearly class lines, we are told and taught that they don’t exist.
I also found the secondary characters laughing during Shylock’s “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech disconcerting. Beyond this being one of the more famous monologues in the canon, this speech is also a universal plea for understanding (and a little vengeance) on behalf of all victims of persecution. This seemed like part of the lower class idea, given that the snickerers were patrons at a bar, and as such was consistent in theory. But in practice, I simply didn’t like it.
However, on the flip side, there were many ways I thought the anti-Semitism issue was handled masterfully. Jeff Clevenger’s performance is exceptional. I saw his actions not at all as a rabid anti-Christian but as a battered individual, pushed by the last straw of his daughter’s elopement to try to exact brutal retribution against a world that had stolen his wife, employee, dignity, and finally, his daughter. Clevenger never lets you forget Shylock’s basic humanity.
Also, the infamous court scene had a significant change from the original text (unless I missed it somehow) in that Shylock was not forced to convert to Christianity, among all of the other indignities he is forced to submit to. Finally, there is the issue of Jessica. Her deportment at the play’s end is distinctly different from Jessicas I’ve seen in other productions. I won’t spoil this for you in case you haven’t seen it but it isn’t expected given her economic situation at the play’s end.
And, in the end, this is a play largely about economics, or the “commidification of relationships” as Mr. Ricks says in his director’s notes. As such, I think making Antonio into a female character is also a masterful change and one I may talk about further in another post.
But before I sign off and since I have “merchants” on my mind, I really am overdue in giving a shout out to the sponsors of the RTCC awards this year. We’ve really had a great stepping up of people in commercial ventures who are supporting the event. Among those who are helping us this year are Style Weekly magazine, which is giving us a bunch of advertising both online and in print as well as hosting the pre-event reception; 103.7 The River, a radio station guided by the fabulous Melissa Chase who has promised to put the word out about us this year; Gay RVA.com, which is also providing us with scads of online advertising; Popkin Tavern, which is hosting the pre-event reception this year; Carreras Jewelers, which of course donated the great raffle prize of a gorgeous diamond necklace; and the extremely talented Jay Paul who is once again donating his photographic services to help memorialize the event.
Given how many “merchants” we have on board this year (not to mention the non-profits also supporting us, which I will at some other point), I’m a little surprised at the somewhat anemic ticket sales so far. Are people holding out until the last couple of weeks? Or have the awards kind of run their course and the excitement has passed? I’m really curious.
Regardless, I’m still excited about the big night and, while I’ll be disappointed if fewer people come than last year, I’ll also have a better chance at going home with that little Carreras bauble…