Element’s ‘Merchant’ seeks to enlighten audience

By Kathi Scrizzi Driscoll, Cape Cod Times

ORLEANS – Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” doesn’t seem an obvious choice for staging at this holiday time of year until you read a program note for the Elements Theatre Company production by Sister Danielle Dwyer, the director.

She points out that this show straddles both the season of Hanukkah and the Christian season of Advent, and she links the fact that both are celebrations of light to Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote that only light can drive out darkness. Dwyer connects the conflicts in the play between men of two religions, here Jewish and Christian, to the disagreements and danger so present in the world today. She suggests that change could begin if each person looks harder at his/her motivations and choices.

“We offer this play, and these possibilities, as prayers for peace in our world,” she says. Or, as the Bible states in the Nativity story, “on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”

It’s a powerful message, with powerful intentions. Elements honors that by creating a “Merchant of Venice” that is impeccably acted – including by Dwyer in a painted-on beard as male Jewish moneylender Shylock – and beautifully designed. It’s clear that the company has dug deeply into all aspects of this play and era, beginning with painted panels in the lobby to explain the history of the unusual, water-surrounded city that is Venice. The 16th-century set – credited to Hans and Charity Spatzeck-Olsen and Sister Irene Psathas – is full of graceful arches and rich colors, and is built around a floor covered with an ancient map of Venice.

Tone is always an issue with this play, though, and the hero characters’ casual and then heated anti-Semitism can be troubling for modern audiences of what is considered a Shakespeare comedy. Scenes of fun bookend a harrowing courtroom conflict in which Shylock is part villain, part victim, and while both moods are superbly played, the script’s quick juxtaposition between tragedy and light comedy is an uneasy mix.

The story has three romances and much genial male friendship. Bassanio, whom Ryan Winkles portrays as passionate and full of life, wants to woo heiress Portia, but needs a loan from merchant friend Antonio (Christopher Kanaga, in a complex and touching performance). Antonio wants to help by getting a loan from Shylock and jokingly agrees that Antonio will forfeit a pound of flesh (thus killing him) if he fails to repay.

There is already mutual dislike between the two, but Dwyer’s disagreeable Shylock becomes vengeful and determined when his unhappy daughter (Ellen Ortolani) steals money and elopes with her Christian lover (Peter Haig). Bassanio, after a charming scene of winning Portia’s hand and love, rushes back to Venice when Antonio’s ships are lost and Shylock demands to cut that pound of flesh. Portia, smart and strong in a terrific performance by Rachel McKendree, follows disguised as a man who can interpret the law, tries to get the hate-filled Shylock to show mercy, and when he refuses, turns the tables on him.

Motivations and choices are indeed worth considering in a story made more complex by the religious considerations. To hear characters we come to like and respect easily and venomously spit out the name “Jew” to address Shylock is jarring, as is them turning to playful marital subterfuge so soon after his downfall.

To help connect the issues the show raises about prejudice, revenge, etc., to the troubles in today’s world, Elements has put together “Pound of Flesh” panel discussions after each Sunday matinee. Experts on religion, theater, human rights and education will talk in a series designed, according to the group’s website, to “create public dialogue on the power of the arts to humanize our culture.”