Shakespeare in Detroit stages free al fresco “Merchant of Venice”
By Patty Nolan
DETROIT, Mich.–Shakespeare in Detroit (SiD) concludes its third season with an exuberant production of The Merchant of Venice. It is hard to distinguish the merits of this production from the deeply satisfying experience of seeing it performed under the stars, in the heart of the city, on a warm summer evening, in the company of delighted audience members spanning the full range of ethnic, age and income demographics. It’s such a good time.
The play itself is a comedy, with many hilarious moments, but it’s a dark comedy that continues to be controversial more than 400 years after it was first staged. Although The Merchant of Venice is anything but politically correct, members of the SiD company embrace it with their eyes and hearts wide open. This unflinching portrayal of the worst kind of prejudice provokes the audience to consider the dangers of institutionalized discrimination. Played out before us, in the guise of comedy, we see the consequence of escalating hatreds that can ultimately launch people into acts of vengeance that defy reason.
It is painfully relevant.
In her program notes, White explains, “… in a time when the world needs more compassion and understanding than ever, we are proud to present a play that serves as a mirror and a window.”
This production is true to Shakespeare’s text with one notable and welcome exception. The play opens with a “Merchant Rap” performed by the company’s first youth actor, Jarreth Jackson. His clever monologue previews the basic action of the story—acknowledging the company’s intent to make the bard accessible to everyone in the community, “because all of our shows are dedicated to our hometown Detroit.” This brought cheers from the audience and kicked things off in a lighter tone than “Merchant” might otherwise enjoy.
White uses non-traditional casting to help us expand the concept of bigotry beyond the basic “Christian vs. Jew” scenario that is fundamental to Shakespeare’s plot. Antonio, the “good” Christian protagonist is played by David Galido, a white male. Galido is careful to portray Antonio as a highly moral and emotionally restrained person who feels totally justified in cursing, spitting upon and marginalizing the Jew, Shylock, from whom he reluctantly borrows money. Shylock, of course, is the villain who dares to resent this unfair treatment. In this production, Shylock is an elderly Jewish man played with remarkable effectiveness by a young woman of color, Morgan Breon. She finds the inherent comedy in the role while still offering a commanding delivery of the famous monolog that challenges prejudice: “If you prick us, to we not bleed?” And she is quite menacing when she demands that Antonio surrender his “pound of flesh” when he defaults on the loan.
Those not familiar with the play should know that interwoven into this grim plot are a number of uplifting, uproarious romances that leaven the tone considerably. This is a thoroughly enjoyable production that features many fine moments from a strong ensemble cast that also includes: Jennifer Cole as Portia, Hugh Duneghy II as Bassanio, Dante Jones as Gratiano, Ryan Ernst as Solanio, Ramona Lucius as Gobbo, Breon Canady as Lancelet, Laura Heikkinen as Nerissa, McArthur Ross as Lorenzo, Krystle Dellihue as Jessica, Madiha Tariq as Duke, Phil Rice as Morocco, and young Jarreth Jackson in multiple roles.
Sam White moves her actors across the full breadth of the New Center Park performance space and sometimes, for added effect, pushes them out onto the thrust area nestled into the grassy amphitheater. The stage is bare, but the production employs beautiful, elaborate Elizabethan costumes that pull us into the 16th Century and distinguish the mercantile world of Venice from the courtly estate of Belmont. The Head of Wardrobe and Costume Designer is Cal Schwartz. Sound design is by Tommy Sinshack; Meagen Mazur is the company’s Director of Marketing with Christine Pellecchia as Production Administrator. Doran Konja serves as Stage Manager for the summer show.
The Merchant of Venice is calculated to create open dialog around a difficult subject, which is ample reason to bring friends to the show this weekend. This SiD production, dropped in the middle of a city with a history of racial tension, reminds us that bad things happen when we judge people by the color of their skin, their uniform, or their religious affiliation. Moreover, it offers a vivid warning to all who demand legal justice but willingly dispense with mercy. As Portia reminds us, “Though justice be thy plea, consider this, That, in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation: we do pray for mercy…”