It takes nerve to launch a production of The Merchant of Venice in 2012, but the benefits of taking that risk, at least in the case of this production, far outweigh the liabilities. Sure, the outrageous racism and anti-Semitism along the Venetian Rialto are enough to sicken a contemporary audience, but out of such dreadful material, Shakespeare has nevertheless managed to craft nothing less than a miracle of dramatic energy and excitement. As Shylock, Eugene Creese gives everything he has, throwing chairs, screaming, cursing, and dragging the entire audience down into the depths of his conflicted soul. Madelyn Robinson makes a fine and, in the end, a forlorn Antonio, the merchant of the title who, despite having his life saved, winds up alone as all those around him couple up at the end of this most strange and strained of comedies. Megan Caniglia delivers a brilliant Portia, easily negotiating the rapid, impulsive changes that are the signature of this profoundly moving and deeply troubling role. Her expert control in the major speeches of the final two acts had the audience hanging on her every word.
The Naked Shakes approach eschews the trappings of kitchen-sink naturalism in favor of a more telegraphic and gestural physical vocabulary, and in this production, the actors’ movements flow as naturally as the waters on which their Venetian gondolas glide. Yet even with the often lovely and sometimes hilarious blocking (e.g., the entrance of the Prince of Arragon accompanied by clapping flamencos and an acoustic guitarist), the words of the Bard remain at the center of our attention, thanks to the meticulous and passionate cast, all of whom deserve high praise for achieving such fluency in the consistently amazing language of this extraordinary text. The casket scenes fly by like some fabulous game show, while the Venetian sequences ebb and flow with the intensity of obsession.
The Merchant of Venice, with its lurid focus on the violent justice of taking a pound of flesh, looks like Shakespeare’s ultimate reflection on the Genesis narrative of the binding of Isaac. By the time we arrive at the end of this bewildering Renaissance roller coaster of good and evil, it is as though the wisdom literature of the King James Bible had thrown off a spark that the immortal Bard then fanned into a conflagration. See this wonderful production for free at the UCSB Performing Arts Theater (HSSB 1139) this weekend, September 8 and 9, at 2:00 and 7:00 PM, or wait until it returns in October at Center Stage. But whatever you do, if you care about Shakespeare’s art, don’t miss it.