In William Shakespeare’s expansive body of work, one of the most problematic plays for today’s audiences is "The Merchant of Venice." This is due to the complicated nature of its ostensible villain, a Jewish money-lender named Shylock. Though the drama was revolutionary in its time for portraying a Jewish character with any degree of nuance or sympathy, today it is impossible to overlook the many antisemitic stereotypes that the text brings up and the hateful slurs uttered by some of the “heroic” members of the cast.
A bold and inventive new production of "The Merchant of Venice" from the University of Texas' Department of Theatre and Dance, playing through Dec. 2 in the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre, embraces this aspect of the play head-on, turning it from a painful reminder of historical stereotypes into an even more painful, desperately urgent exposé of our contemporary prejudices.
Director Adam L. Sussman makes three distinct choices that define the shape of this production. First, in the role of Shylock he has cast the amazingly talented Burgess Byrd, a black woman. Second, he has made the subtextual homoerotic relationship between two of the protagonists — Antonio and Bassanio — into a full-fledged on-stage love affair. Finally, he has set the production in modern times, complete with the ongoing conceit of a "Bachelorette"-like reality show that uses live cameras to follow around rich heiress (and female lead) Portia, giving audience members multiple angles from which to view the events unfolding before them.
Taken together, these alterations make for what may be the best Shakespeare production I’ve ever seen, and certainly the most intensely contemporary production. By focusing so intently, early in the play, on Shylock’s oppression (a backstory that is augmented by a black woman embodying the character), Sussman and Byrd turn what was intended to be a romantic comedy into a play that ought to be called "The Tragedy of Shylock." Shylock’s anger at those who scorn and spit upon her because of her religion is one that many of us feel at the current moment, and her desire for her “pound of flesh” becomes, in this context, completely understandable. At the same time, by siding with Shylock, we as onlookers are then forced to question our own “quality of mercy,” and wonder whether our righteous rage can or will go too far.
There is much more to this production than just Shylock, though. There is also commentary on the vacuity of reality television, the participation of oppressed groups in their own oppression (and the oppression of others), and the nature of redemptive justice. But in addition, there is copious amounts of comedy provided by a talented cast.
Bella Medina is full of wit, charm and a growing sense of her own angry righteousness in a stunning performance as Portia, while Savanna Cole is delightfully brash and full of physically comedic brilliance as her servant and friend, Nerissa. In smaller roles, Miles LeBlanc shines with pure goofiness as Portia’s two would-be suitors, and Zachary Henry steals several scenes as the maniacally bitter servant Launcelot. The latter character, who espouses some of the most virulently antisemitic lines in the play, thus becomes a kind of pathetic Archie Bunker type, another brilliant twist of contemporary social commentary.
UT’s production of "The Merchant of Venice" is an accessible, necessary updating of a problematic canonical work. It creates a version of Shakespeare that is not only appealing to today’s audiences, but also vital for them to see.