The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, directed by William Church, at Interlochen

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David Montee as Shylock in the Merchant-of-Venice at The Interlochen Shakespeare Festival
David Montee as Shylock in the Merchant-of-Venice at The Interlochen Shakespeare Festival

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare,
Harvey Theatre, Interlochen Center for the Arts
June 30 and July 1, 2, 3, 7, 8, 9, 10,

Director – William Church (Artistic Director)
Artistic Associate – Laura Ames Mittelstaedt
Scenic Designer – Christopher S. Dills
Costume Designer – Candace Hughes
Lighting Designer – Rachel Konieczny
Sound Designer – Rory Baker

Antonio – Justin Flagg
Salerio – Noah Durham
Solanio – Logan Woodruff
Bassanio – Matthew Folsom
Gratiano – Evan Adams
Lorenzo – Andrew McCallum Smith
Portia – Laura Ames Mittelstaedt
Nerissa – Kathleen Kleiger
Portia’s Servant – Jody Burns
Shylock – David Montee
Tubal – Scott A. Harman
Morocco – Siddhartha Rajan
Lancelot Gobbo – Jeffrey Nauman
Old Gobbo/Duke – J. W. Morrissette
Jessica – Rachel Eskenazi-Gold
Arragon – Justin Perez

It is easy to understand why Shylock, the reviled Venetian Jew, became the focal point of The Merchant of Venice in the latter half of the twentieth century. Though we all felt profound sympathy for those he came to represent, we are all familiar with the abuses that exclusive attention to an otherwise fascinating character led to in the theatre. This play is about much more than Shylock.

Yet Interlochen had every right to place Shylock at the center of Merchant once more given that the part was played by David Montee, Director of Theatre Arts at the Academy for twenty-one years. The cast included no less than ten of Mr. Montee’s former students.

The Interlochen Arts Academy grew out of an orchestral training camp established in 1928 in the woods of Northern Michigan. In addition to educating some of the best fine arts’ instructors across the country, the Academy has produced an impressive corps of professional actors and television personalities including Mike Wallace, Richard L. Brooks, Felicity Huffman, Toni Trucks, Alexandra Silber, Michael McMillian, and many others. An integral component of the Interlochen program is its prestigious summer camp targeting young people from around the world lacking local opportunities to hone their creative skills. The Interlochen Shakespeare Festival is a relatively new development, this being its fourth season after Twelfth Night (2008), The Taming of the Shrew (2009), and Macbeth (2010).

Montee portrayed Shylock splendidly as the multi-faceted character he really is, bent on revenge but unsure of his motives. What really fills him with rage? Is it the money he’s lost? The abuse he’s endured? The man he hates? And if the latter, which man? Antonio? Lorenzo? Gratiano?

It is all and none of these. In a brilliant moment during the trial scene, as he poises the tip of his knife on Antonio’s breast, Shylock seems to have a conversion. He shirks back at the very moment Portia blurts out, “Tarry a little, there is something else,” as if Shylock realizes he cannot follow through with his brutal intention. Montee plays the rest of the scene as if Shylock is equally ashamed of himself as he is humiliated by the judge’s astuteness. The ultimate insult comes in the form of a bucket of water poured from the ceiling just after the Duke declares, “Get thee gone, but do it.” This forced baptism takes place under a lone spotlight in the darkened theatre. The dripping, “Christened” Jew then slowly exits in silence. It is a riveting moment. Indeed, it could have been more riveting if Gratiano’s lines beginning “In christening shalt thou have two godfathers …” had been omitted, seeing as Shylock’s “baptism,” at least in the eyes of Gratiano and his Christian companions, is already accomplished.

In any case, Shylock’s debasement was in perfect keeping with the early-1930s setting of this production, a time just prior to Mussolini’s codification of anti-Semitism in Fascist Italy. Truth be told, the Italian populace generally resented Il Duce’s imposition of the law, but there were undoubtedly pockets of bitter hatred against the Jews. In any event, the primary focus of this production seemed more universal in scope: “it is a world full of people who treat each other not as fellow human beings, but as labels and things: Christian or Jew, bankrupt or servant, monetary venture or sovereign property. This is an imperfect world full of imperfect people, and we can neither canonize nor wholly demonize anyone … This is a world confused and looking for harmony with little hope of finding it” (from the Program Notes by Scott A. Harman).

Montee portrays Shylock as one on a journey toward self-knowledge only to discover that it is too late for him to change. Solanio’s recounting of Shylock’s reaction to the loss of both daughter and ducats (“I never heard a passion so confused…”) reveals the money-lender’s tortured heart. Rachel Eskenazi-Gold played Jessica as if she too is torn over her father’s ambivalent love for her and greed for money. Montee made it clear early that he was not going to play a ruthless, ice-cold Shylock. His voice rose with anger at the lines, “And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” Whereas many actors recite them as a premeditated, rational conclusion of the “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech, Montee placed them on the borderline between the rational and irrational. In short, Montee plays a human Shylock: a man just as confused as any of the other characters on the stage, the difference being that he is the victim of their inhumane bigotry.

The conflicted feelings enflaming his desire for revenge render his character much more complex than we might first think. It is only rational that he expects the “flesh and blood” robbed of him in his daughter Jessica to be compensated by the “flesh and blood” of his archenemy Antonio, even though it is completely irrational to think that something so valuable (i.e., his daughter) can compare with something so worthless (i.e., a pound of Antonio’s flesh). Montee’s Shylock eventually realizes – again, only after it is too late for him to undo the damage – that no matter what he demands, nothing will make up for the loss of his daughter. It pains him deeply to say, “Would she were hearsed at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin.” Montee shrewdly makes this the apex of all his speeches. Shylock’s wish to get rid of a competitor (“for were he out of Venice I can make what merchandise I will”) is superficial and subordinate to his more irrational drives. When Antonio (Justin Flagg) explains that “I oft delivered from his forfeitures / Many that have at times made moan to me. / Therefore he hates me,” we are not even sure if he believes avarice to be Shylock’s primary motive.

Laura Ames Mittelstaedt, who in addition to playing Portia served as artistic associate to William Church, seems to have prepared earnestly for this role. Portia is perhaps the most difficult character to comprehend, and she is best understood by placing her in relation to those around her, especially Nerissa (Kathleen Kleiger). It is too tempting to think of her merely as savvy, enterprising, and way ahead of her time. She works within social norms by remaining detached from them and by cultivating an appreciation for their worth. Similarly, Mittelstaedt seemed to step back from her role so as to immerse herself more thoroughly in the overall plot. This allowed her to bring an uncommon consistency to her character. She delivered “The quality of mercy…,” for example, with the same insouciant common sense as “Pay him six thousand, and deface the bond.” She portrayed Portia as self-possessed, but nonetheless in love and truly jealous of her husband’s betrayal. Portia’s deliberations regarding if, when, and how to forgive Bassanio (Matthew Folsom) were so subtle as to go almost unnoticed, but Mittelstaedt clearly devoted much thought to the process. A turning point occurs in “The crow doth sing…,” which she recites as if musing over the proper “seasons” of Bassanio’s love for her, his loyalty to his friend Antonio, his gratitude to “Balthasar,” and her own desire to test and to forgive him.

Portia’s journey to self-liberation was cleverly symbolized by hanging three “caskets” of gold, silver, and lead around her neck like lockets. This closed the physical space between her and the Princes of Morocco and Arragon and opened up new possibilities for comic relief. Siddhartha Rajan (Morocco) and Justin Perez (Arragon) readily obliged, playing their roles in quasi-burlesque fashion. This earned laughs but sacrificed the moral weight of lines which happen to be among the most noble of the play. The trade-off did little harm to the play’s integrity, however, and actually expanded the range of character contrast that made this production so engaging. None of the actors was afraid to bring his or her personality to the role, a practice that seems encouraged at Interlochen.

This approach held true for Eskenazi-Gold and Andrew McCallum Smith (Lorenzo), who were not afraid to bring out the naïve and idealistic side of their characters. Their relationship was filled with innocent gaiety despite the grave risks involved in their elopement. On the other hand, their boundless energy could have been contained ever so slightly in the exchanges of “In such a night…” so as to let the gorgeous poetry come through more clearly.

Jeffrey Nauman and J. W. Morrissette (who doubles as the Duke) were delightful as Lancelot and Old Gobbo, making the often tedious reunification scene lighthearted and genuinely “foolish.” Nauman brings extensive Shakespearian experience and an uncommon sensitivity to the role, especially in his relationship with Jessica.

A simple and thoughtful set complimented the production superbly. Two intersecting docks ran from opposite corners of the stage to form a Saint Andrew’s cross whose center was at the stage’s very middle. A series of pylons flanked both docks, thus providing places for the actors to sit or stand or lean as needed. There was not a single awkward moment in the blocking, something that could only have been accomplished if the artistic and stage teams were in communication throughout the production process. The stage floor was covered with an array of mirrors to create the subtle impression of a shimmering sea, tastefully subdued so as not to reflect too much stage light. The overall effect should have provoked the envy of Stratford.

William Church and company’s interpretation of Merchant is most remarkable in that they were not afraid to let loose ends remain untied. This is one of Shakespeare’s most popular, but not one of his most cohesive plays. He gives latitude to the director and cast to determine how individual scenes should be related to the whole. Shylock is but one of several characters whose motives are not only ambiguous and shifty, but amorphous.

Take Antonio, for example. We go to great lengths trying to figure out why he plays such a sad “part” on the world’s stage. And yet he tells us straightaway in the first scene that he holds “the world but as the world.” We should be equally content with his phlegmatic temperament (though not with his anti-Semitism, God forbid). Rather than trying to nail down a single motive for his sullenness, this production ends precisely where it started: with Antonio sitting on a dock, chin resting in hand, staring at the sea. In a world surfeit with uncertainty, is that not resolution enough?

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