PICT’s ‘Merchant of Venice’ Brings out the Laughs—and the Depths—of This Classic

Antonio (Martin Giles, L) and Shylock (James FitzGerald) have a business relationship. Not shown: the monkey business that unfolds around them, and the ugly business that will soon erupt.

Antonio (Martin Giles, L) and Shylock (James FitzGerald) have a business relationship. Not shown: the monkey business that unfolds around them, and the ugly business that will soon erupt.

To do Shakespeare right, two things must be accomplished. The company has to bring out the strengths of the play it has chosen, and overcome the difficulties that Shakespeare can present to a modern audience. PICT Classic Theatre’s production of The Merchant of Venice scores thumbs-up on both. The result is a darned good evening at the theater for anyone who appreciates an absurd comedy with a sting in its tail.

Yes, The Merchant of Venice is a comedy. The script is filled with laughs and potential laughs that may not come across when reading the play, as you might have done in school. But the joy of seeing Shakespeare performed is that good actors and directors can turn the material into the rousing experience it was meant to be.

The Laughter Rolls, the Knife Lurks

PICT’s cast, directed by Alan Stanford, doesn’t miss a comic opportunity. In the very first scene we find wealthy Antonio (played by Martin Giles) in a melancholy, moaning mood. The scene was written to be staged on the streets of Venice, but the PICT production—which updates the setting to the 1930s—places it in the bathhouse of a gymnasium. This allows the poor old rich man to be swathed in a white bathrobe and languish in a lounge chair, where he can indulge his late-life angst more graphically.

Then comes a high-spirited young dude named Gratiano (Jonathan Visser), eager to relieve Antonio’s despair. He steps behind Antonio and starts massaging his temples. And with this seemingly natural move, the wackiness begins. As Gratiano launches into a maudlin pep talk—“I tell thee what, Antonio: I love thee, and it is my love that speaks,” etc, etc..—he reaches his long fingers around to manipulate the older man’s face, making him open his mouth, goggle his eyes, and wiggle his visage along with the words like a puppet.  Described here on the page, the stunt is not a tiny fraction as funny as it was in the theater on opening night, when it got the audience roaring.

There’s much more to come. In many Shakespeare plays, the lineup includes an uppity fool as the designated prankster. That role in The Merchant of Venice belongs to the manservant Launcelot Gobbo, played by Connor McCanlus, who flounces and flouts about so fabulously that if I can ever afford a servant, I’ll know whom to call. The play also has a comical subplot revolving around the glamorous Portia (Gayle Pazerski), a keen-witted woman besieged by dim-witted suitors. Those scenes are equally excellent.

The Knives Come Out

And of course, amid the shenanigans, a serious plot line percolates. It’s the one in which the Jewish moneylender Shylock (James FitzGerald) demands a pound of flesh from Antonio to settle a defaulted loan. It has made The Merchant of Venice controversial, for Shylock can easily be portrayed (and over the years, often has been portrayed) as a grasping, malicious stereotype.

Shylock's bad day in court lets Antonio off the hook, while Bassanio (Luke Halferty, R) savors the outcome.

Shylock’s bad day in court lets Antonio off the hook, while Bassanio (Luke Halferty, R) savors the outcome.

But that was not necessarily the playwright’s intent. Shylock is given lines and scenes that convey how he has been tormented by the Christians he lives among. His dramatic “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, a speech that passionately evokes both the common humanity and the mutual hostility of Gentiles and Jews, is just one example.

We see Shylock abandoned by his daughter, who converts to marry outside the faith. We learn that in addition to his being legally regarded as a semi-human “alien” rather than as a lifelong citizen, he’s a lonely widower. We see and hear him addressed repeatedly not by his name, but by the spat-our epithet “Jew.”

The PICT production doesn’t miss a chance to drive home those points, either. The Shylock we get is a man teetering on the knife-edge of everything that matters in life. When he goes to court to extract his gruesome payment, refusing a more-than-generous cash offer from Antonio’s friends, has he gone insanely over the edge? Yes. But are we made acutely aware of all that has helped to drive him to such a state? Yes, that too.

And when the verdict comes down—when Shylock loses his crazy case, and has further penalties and humiliations piled upon him, even as the opposition exults—you’d have to be stone cold not to feel his pain.

One can discuss and debate interpretations of The Merchant of Venice at length. The play certainly has social relevance in today’s world, at a time when ethnic tensions and “aliens” among us are hot issues, and therein lies more grist for the mill.

But let’s also please notice the play’s artistic brilliance—a modern sort of brilliance, no less. Here is a bizarre, madcap comedy interwoven with chilling themes of personal and societal madness. In that sense it’s very much like some of our best contemporary plays. The artist known as Shakespeare wrote it more than 400 years ago, and PICT does justice to it.

Relax and Let the Ship Come In

As for the difficulties Shakespeare can present: Shakespeare is wordy. His characters tend to say a lot and take their time saying it. Moreover, the language includes jargon and usages we’re not familiar with.

PICT’s production is not an abridged version but does try to remediate the wordiness. In the opening scene, for example, some speeches are trimmed down or cut out—it’s common to shave Shakespeare a little—and in the many places where long speeches are left intact, they’re done strongly enough to make the listening worthwhile.

The old-time jargon can be tricky at times. When there’s banter about “argosies” and goods stashed “in one bottom,” you may not know that sailing ships are being discussed. But translating Shakespeare into modern lingo is a worse option (can you say “dud”?), and this is another area where live performance trumps the printed page. You haven’t got time to look up the obscure terms, so you just sit back and let the play carry you, as the trade winds carried those argosies of old. No worries. The goods will be delivered.

Closing Credits and Ticket Info

Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice runs through November 19 at The Union Project, 801 N. Negley Ave., Highland Park. The whole cast plays well. Actors not mentioned already are: Karen Baum, Justin Bees, Fredi Bernstein, Ken Bolden, Michael Steven Brewer, Simon Colker, Parag S. Gohel, Luke Halferty, and Carolyn Jerz.

Finally, PICT’S tech team deserves a shout-out, as it always does. For showtimes and tickets, visit PICT on the web or call 412-561-6000.

Photos courtesy of PICT Classic Theatre. The second photo is by Keith A. Truax.

Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer and editor, covers theater for Entertainment Central.