There’s something automatically intriguing about a production of “The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare’s most controversial play. Yes, even for San Francisco. Though the city rarely shies away from addressing contentious subjects, something about “Merchant” raises brows. San Francisco is progressive, certainly, but progressive stops where political correctness begins. Fortunately for the theater-hungry and the Shakespeare-savvy, there is no element of guilt for the viewer in the Custom Made Theatre Company’s current production of “Merchant of Venice.”
Written between 1596 and 1598, “Merchant” carries all the tell-tale signs of the 16th century. The influence of the Protestant Reformation, which pitted Christians against Christians and eventually, as religious strifes were wont to do, Christians against Jewish scapegoats, is evident in “Merchant.” It is therefore curious and certainly thrilling to have a play so seemingly rooted in Shakespeare’s time set in a different period. The concept of Shakespeare in different settings, often our own, is hardly new. Even audiences relatively unexposed to live theatre are at least aware of films like the 1996 Baz Luhrmann picture “Romeo and Juliet,” where Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes love each other to death in a modern suburb.
The Custom Made Theatre’s production is no less timely. Set in a Wall Street-like environment, the merchant of Venice, Antonio, struts about in suit and tie, his patent leather dress shoes reflecting the multicolored lights of the intimate Gough Street Playhouse. These are the rich playboys of the 1%, their wealth stemming from the wide tides of business. High heels scrape upon the stage floor and costly courtship coexists with cocaine habits with an appalling normalcy. It is a story of power beseeching power, of Bassanio enticing Portia with a wealth he doesn’t have.
The audience is similarly enticed, though with one significant difference: the Stuart Bousel-directed production of “Merchant” is rich in quality indeed, delivering no less than an excellent and faithful production of the Bard’s ostensible comedy (though, a comedy more often remembered for its dramatic scenes). The critical anti-semitism debate, while important and necessary to any discussion of “Merchant,” has the tendency to overshadow the play itself — particularly those elements of comedy that made and continue to make Shakespeare so popular. Custom Made remains faithful to that humorous streak, particularly in Portia’s search for a husband. The wealthy heiress’ main asset is her cutting wit, dismissing her suitors with a wave of her hand and clever jibes.
Megan Briggs’ Portia is a balanced serving of comedy and gravity, refusing to let any man, even Bassanio, whom she loves, have her hand without testing their character. Similarly, Matt Gunnison’s Gratiano is a double-edged sword of silliness and profundity, first appearing as a cocaine-snorting party boy with a tie wrapped around his head. Later, he is Antonio’s vehement defender in court when Shylock, the Jewish lender, comes to collect his due.
The play’s deepest well of wealth, both literally and figuratively, lies in Shylock. Catz Forsman’s steely lender has been wronged, spit upon and made to feel subhuman in the past. Shylock fills the intimate stage, delivering a most eloquent and sympathetic monologue, uttering the famous line, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” with a gravitas that incites total silence from the audience. This production of “Merchant” is successful precisely because of the lack of clear villainy in the plot. Viewed in the context of a Wall Street environment, each is but a victim of the wealth that corrupts and destroys. Man is but a tool to be tossed away once he has served his ultimate purpose — profit. A product of his class, a victim of social turmoil, Shylock isn’t just the historically oppressed Jew. His reactionary tendencies point to our reality now — of the powerfully corrupt damaging our collective worth, and occupation movements rising up, wounded, against them.
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