The Merchant of Venice Review - Revenge or Mercy?

To contemporary audiences, it may be difficult to understand why THE MERCHANT OF VENICE was classified as a comedy in Shakespeare’s first Folio. And yet it was and likened to Shakespeare’s typical romantic comedies. Written in the last decade of the sixteenth century and first performed in 1605 in the Court of King James, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE has had a controversial history focused primarily on Shylock, the Jewish moneylender of Venice.

Susan Angelo and Willow Geer - Photo by Ian Flanders

Jews were expelled from England in 1290 by King Edward I but later permitted to return in the sixteenth century. In Venice, Jews were forced to wear red hats at all times in public places (yellow badges in England); they were also required to live in a ghetto protected by Christian guards. The temper of the times was clearly anti-Semitic, and Jews were considered “aliens” by other Venetians. Is it any wonder that Shylock was not a contented businessman? Despite this “politically correct” view in Shakespeare’s time, the play was rarely performed and apparently was not especially popular during his lifetime. By the way, Shakespeare’s finale – Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity – was seen as a happy ending because it gave Shylock the opportunity to enter heaven.

Alan Blumenfeld and Kevin Hudnell - Photo by Ian Flanders

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE became a reluctant hit again in the twentieth century. Shortly after Kristallnacht in 1938, the Nazis broadcast the piece over all German airwaves as perfect propaganda. During the Nazi regime, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE was also repeatedly produced on stage, with Shylock becoming the stereotype of “the evil and greedy Jew.” Quite a background for a sixteenth century play. Given the recent rise of anti-Semitic incidents in the US and other countries around the world, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE has again become culturally relevant. But today’s audiences typically see Shylock in a very different light, with compassion and – at the very least - understanding rather than recrimination and blame.  

Maia Luer and Dane Oliver - Photo by Ian Flanders

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE tells the tale of Bassanio (Colin Simon), who asks his good friend and mentor Antonio (Franc Ross) for a loan so that he can court the lovely heiress Portia (Willow Geer). Unfortunately, all of Antonio’s wealth is tied up in shipping, and his ships are currently at sea. He authorizes Bassanio to borrow the money from Shylock (Alan Blumenfeld), who gives Bassanio the loan without monetary interest. However, he demands a contract which indicates that, if for any reason the money is not paid back in full on time, Antonio will forfeit a pound of flesh. Even though Antonio agrees, it is with trepidation that Bassanio finally accepts the terms.

Rav Val Denegro and Evangeline Edwards - Photo by Ian Flanders

Bassanio has great success in his courtship and wins the fair Portia after selecting the correct of three chests (with a little encouragement by Portia). But then the unthinkable happens. All of Antonio’s ships are lost at sea – and he cannot repay the loan. Will Shylock demand the forfeit, which will result in Antonio’s death? Or will Shylock be merciful instead and forgive the loan? Most audiences will know the answer – but it is the journey to the end point – rather than the concluding moment – which is exciting and involving and has made Shakespeare the famed playwright who continues to transition across the centuries.  

Evangeline Edwards, Olivia Berumen, Susan Angelo, Willow Geer, Bethany Koulias, and Laura Zanoni - Photo by Ian Flanders

Director Ellen Geer does a compelling job of helming the production, and all the characters are brought to life by a very talented group of actors. As always, the outdoor free-flowing ambiance of the Theatricum Botanicum lends itself to Shakespeare’s plays. Beth Glasner’s costumes bring the audience back a few centuries, and the entire production team fulfills its mission with care and competence. Let’s face it. Shakespeare never grows old, and this production breathes new life into a classic.

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE runs through October 1, 2017, with performances on Saturdays at 3:30 p.m. (5/17, 6/24, 7/1, 7/15, 8/19, 9/2, 9/23) and 7:30 p.m. (6/3, 6/10, 7/1, 8/12) and on Sundays at 3:30 p.m. (8/6, 8/27, 10/1) and 7:30 p.m. (8/6, 9/17). Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum is located at 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, CA 90290. Tickets are $25 and $38.50 with discounts for seniors, students, military veterans, teachers, and AEA members. For information and reservations, call 310-455-3723 or go online

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