The Toronto Theatre Review: Real Canaan Theatre’s The Merchant of Venice
It seems very apropos. Or at least a festive, fortunate turn, for the Real Canaan Theatre to stage a small, swift, smart rendering of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in an actual (revitalized) storefront, aka the Red Sandcastle Theatre on Queen Street East, Toronto. The idea is pretty grand; a true symbol of our own mercantile re-structuring of space and vision. But this was no one-off construct created strictly for this play, although it would have been a very fun one indeed. It is the Red Sandcastle‘s base camp, a 50 seat space, geared towards straightforward theatre making, so to speak. And a pleasant coincidence, as it does, as directed solidy by Christopher Lucas (Gladstone Theatre’s Camelot; Cry Baby), dutifully unpack the fun, fraught formulation that is this play. And it does so, in all of its playfully precise deliverance of this well-known text, while smartly finding their way through, staying clear of the racist/anti-Semitic conjuncture that this play is so well known for. Good going, Real Canaan.
Their Merchant of Venice, beyond being wise, is quite the thrilling modern engagement. It’s just so much fun, to sit back and watch this band of merry young actors gather together on this slim rectangular acting space, and stage this no-frills production of this classic yet controversial play that carries such clarity and insight. Gathering together on a few side chairs with a classic music lead-in, with all stationed in front of a simple backdrop of glued-on pages, Real Canaan Theatre blasts this play forth with a youthful energy that is exceptionally wise and basically wonderful, although not without a few overt problems bouncing in and out of the framework, like escaped clowns from a car.
Regardless, it’s a bold step for the company, as many see this play as hugely problematic, infamous for the character of Shylock, played here exceptionally well by Kitti Laki (Compass Theatre’s The Little Prince), and the character’s famous demand for that “pound of flesh” promised in the notorious lending bond scheme. Laki, as the wisely accented Shylock, as well as the less problematic Lorenzo, delivers a solid rendering in gold stilettos that is deep and clear. Laki plays fairly and honest, as the whole cast and production do, with a credible reconfiguration of the role that works so well, along with a number of well thought out ideals surrounding gender and the often aligned stereotypes of the immigrant and social outcasts. It’s a pretty strong showing, mostly (or maybe entirely, I’m not quite sure) by leaving out the word “Jew” and replacing it with “Immigrant” throughout the play. That, along with a few other omissions, thoughtfully changes the light and the focus of the character and our alliances, particularly with the timely articulation of its “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech on humanity, which is expertly delivered with a magnitude worthy of the play and the audience’s applause.
The Merchant of Venice, generally classified as a comedy in Shakespeare’s First Folio, is now one that is typically seen as anti-Semitic, with the Jewish character “punished” for lacking the grace to comprehend and grant mercy to a capsized Antonio. Particularly meaningful after listening to Portia, well played by Elyssia Giancola (George Brown’s Paradise Lost), deliver her famous “the quality of mercy” speech in the trial scene. It has been said that Shakespeare used this moment to contrast the “mercy” of the main ‘Christian’ characters with the vengefulness of the Jewish character, a very uncomfortable and problematic creation that this production has wisely redefined brilliantly. The scene still registered, but in uniquely differing ways, thanks to the reinvention, with our empathy leaning away from where it once was historically meant to go.
Especially wise is the restructured decision to delete Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity, once seen as the play’s “happy ending” for the character. A terrible conclusion looking back, even inside the historical framing of the time. It is very true that English society in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras has been described as particularly “Judeophobic” and this old construct fit that bill, even as scholars continue to debate the intention. Still, Shylock is ultimately punished in the Real Canaan production, reduced to financial and familial ruin by the end of the play. Even with the outcome of the trial steeped in the absolute mockery of said ‘justice’. It is a disguised Portia, acting as a pretend judge, someone who really has no legal right to play such a role, that causes an adjustment to the verdict. And it is in that framing that the hypocrisy is unveiled, and the way we look at Shylock shifts. Historically speaking, and within this stronger construct.
Shakespeare was and is never simplistic, especially in his formulations of character and meaning, leaving much to be unpacked within each and every production (a quality that forever makes me curious to see and understand a director’s personal vision). Within this well-formulated construct, as we uncomfortably watch the supposedly ‘good’ characters berate Shylock for dishonesty while resorting themselves to trickery, Shylock, the immigrant, is more sympathetic. We feel for her unraveling, as we are able to empathize with the unfairness that has brought her to this state, rather than just see her as that red-hat-wearing Venetian villain history likened to portray the character as.
Laki wins in the end, giving us a representation that will forever be connected to the part and this reformulation. One of the many other standouts in this quick-witted production is Bridget Ori (“All Too Perfect“) as both the steadfast Antonio and the very funny Arragon, finding ease inside the language that pulls us indirectly and engages us completely. The same can be said of both Hadley Abrams (“Sunrises for Darling“) as Bassanio and the character’s romantic counterpoint, Giancola’s Portia. The three, along with Freya Scerri Diacono (Theatre Sheridan’s Concord Floral) as both the playful Nervosa and gentle Jessica find their naturalistic style embedded in their performance, delivering forth the goods with compelling clarity. What puzzles me still is Jessica’s strong sexual flirtation with Shylock’s servant, played by Aaron MacPherson (George Brown’s Paradise Lost), outlining their hands together tightly. It’s at odds with her following vocal devotion and love for Laki’s Lorenzo, and the reasonings for that flirtation never fully explained or played with. Then the whole concept is ultimately dismissed, ignored, and never really referenced again. What’s that all about?
But ultimately, these women rule that stage. But unfortunately, the same can’t really be said of the two gentlemen of Venice. Roberto Ercoli (Rose Theatre’s Macbeth), playing the trifecta of Gratiano, Sicilia, and Tubal, tends to lean in a bit too hard to his big grand gesturings, almost over extending his limbs in each determined presentation. He does find a bit more controlled nuance in his quick formulation as Shylock’s Uncle Tubal, leading us to the concept that he is capable of so much more, but how he is directed to portray the other two roles sometimes feels overwrought. Much like the totality of MacPherson’s parts as he overdoes his portrayal of the Clown, Salanio, and especially the Duke of Venice, the ultimate authority who presides over the case of Shylock’s bond. In that last role, his overly fussy characterization, and hand gesturing, continually stroking his gown, distract us away from the focal point. He deserves much more respect in a way, much like his stereotypical and somewhat demeaning approach to playing ‘the girl’, Jessica, with a continual hair twirling gesture that has nothing to do with Diacono’s early solidly sweet presentation (although I will say that the playfulness of how the director embraces the moment when both of Diacono’s characters are meant to be standing onstage side-by-side delivers hilariously well). The director, with these two actors, leans in a bit too hard on the clowning, even when the construct generally makes sense. Maybe, just possibly, he should have corralled these overt characterizations and portrayals inside a bit more, finding a way to embrace and embellish the moment, rather than distract and simply go in for the cheap banana laugh.
This is just a minor complication in the big theatrical scheme of things, and even though the production, produced and designed by Real Canaan Theatre‘s Carrie Lucas; with straightforward lighting by Chin Palipane (Lost Dream’s Dead Broke), starts out relying a bit too heavily on physical clowning around, while also performing the text like it’s all a game of charades, the young cast finds their way forward into something much stronger than its start. They settle their limbs down and start to unwrap a state of understanding and thoughtfulness that delivers well and true. The wise restructuring unpacks itself strongly, staying clear of the problems that reside within the text and the complex problematic history of the play, and delivers a production that the Real Canaan Theatre should be very proud of. It is difficult to know for sure what Shakespeare, a writer of such complexity, truly intended (as the debate rages on). And even with all that weight layed upon its shoulders, this Merchant of Venice finds itself on the more compassionate and empathetic mercantile aisle of theatrical history, selling us a wise and wonderful production that rings true, with carefully reconstructed joy from beginning to its complex end.