By Ellen Petry Whalen, The Cape Cod Chronicle
Even though Shakespeare never goes out of style, in times of uncertainty the Bard’s powerful words can ring more true. This is definitely the case today with the world’s many dark and tenuous situations, and Elements Theatre Company’s commendable “The Merchant of Venice” is trying to shed some much needed light on them.
Upon first examination, the controversial “Merchant of Venice” might seem like an odd choice for the holidays, since anti-Semitism, along with hatred and love, are at its core. Drawing upon similarities more than differences, director Danielle Dwyer explains the show’s two-week run is set directly in between the celebratory season of lights for both Jews and Christians.
The two-and-a-quarter-hour tragicomedy begins with the spendthrift and debt-ridden Bassanio (Ryan Winkles) asking his good friend, the royal merchant Antonio (Christopher Kanaga), for money to woo his love, Lady Portia (Rachel McKendree). Having his monies currently tied up in a number of seafaring ventures, Antonio obligingly tells his young, love-crazed friend to find him a lender to secure a loan. The Jewish moneylender Shylock (Danielle Dwyer) has had a long sordid history with the anti-Semitic Antonio, and openly showing his disdain, Antonio surprisingly spits on Shylock. Unexpectedly, Shylock agrees to a loan without interest, but if it isn’t repaid in three months, Antonio must freely give a pound of his flesh.
The wealthy Lady Portia is not permitted to choose her husband, as her now-deceased father made a contest of her hand, and suitors from around the world have been trying to win it. Each of their marital fates is determined after choosing between three small “caskets” of gold, silver, and lead. With some cunning, Bassanio chooses well, and he and Portia wed, along with her maiden, Nerissa (Stephanie Haig) and Bassanio’s friend, Gratiano (Kyle Norman).
Meanwhile, Shylock’s ungrateful daughter, Jessica (Ellen Ortolani), elopes with Lorenzo (Peter Haig), robbing her father of his fortune and converting to Christianity. In a miserable state, it looks like Shylock’s only hope is revenge. When Antonio’s note comes due and he isunable to pay, Shylock refuses to show mercy, literally demanding his revengeful pound of flesh, immortalized in the famous lines, “If you prick us do we not bleed? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”
Dwyer is unyielding and unflinching as the tragic Shylock, refusing to give the Christians any added pleasure with their blatant malice. Kanaga is a resigned Antonio, accepting his fate with dignity and forgiveness. As Bassanio, Winkles has a playful yet noble approach, loyal to his friend until the end, while McKendree presents a Portia who revels in her intelligence and ability to outwit her husband.
Brad Lussier steals the show, playing the fool in manyroles, helping to lighten the cautionary tale. On Saturday, the audience loved his extra flourishes as the insolent servant Launcelot and the eccentric Prince of Morocco.
As usual, Elements’ set is striking, with its meticulous reincarnation of late 1500s Venice’s colorful, stucco-wall lined villas and an intricate wrought iron fence leading to the Jewish ghetto. The set’s foundation is a large rug which runs the length of the stage and is strikingly covered with an ancient map of Venice. Elements’ costumes once again delight the senses with original and handmade designs using opulent fabrics like silks, taffeta, and velvets, with many gold and gem adornments.
Next year marks 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, and Elements has begun celebrating a little early with their opulent “Merchant of Venice.” On Sunday they have an optional pre-matinee luncheon followed by a “thoughtprovoking” panel of experts discussing the “other” in our societies. On Friday and Saturday night, the play is followed by a complimentary wine and cheese reception in their art gallery, beautifully displaying intricate costumes from many past productions.
“The Merchant of Venice” is another highly polished production from the intimate Elements Theatre Company, which, located in The Community of Jesus, is still one of the best kept theatrical secrets on the Cape, along with the fact that students can attend at no charge.