Five actors play Shylock in the production of “The Merchant of Venice” that the Peak Performances series is presenting at the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University through Oct. 1. But even before any of these actors appear, it’s obvious that this will not be a traditional version of the Shakespeare classic.
Director Karin Coonrod has added an introductory segment in which all the play’s cast members dance their way onto the stage, as if taking part in a carnival parade, and one of them, Francesca Sarah Toich (who plays the clown Launcelot Gobbo, re-named Lancillotto here), speaks to the audience. It’s a non-Shakespearean soliloquy, borrowed from the 16th century Italian playwright Angelo (Il Ruzzante) Beolco; Toich delivers it in Italian, with English supertitles projected behind her.
And it’s about love. That’s right, love.
“The Merchant of Venice,” of course, is most famous for Shylock, the Jewish money lender who demands a pound of flesh in return for an unpaid loan. But it’s also a comedy, and a love story.
The merchant in the title isn’t Shylock. It’s Antonio (played here by Toussaint Jeanlouis), who borrows money to help his friend Bassanio (Titus Tompkins) in his efforts to win over the heiress Portia (Linda Powell). But then Antonio is imperiled when unexpected business setbacks leave him unable to pay Shylock back.
After the tragic story line with Shylock is resolved — with Shylock, ultimately, being the one who suffers the most — the play ends on a light note. Bassanio and Portia are happily paired off, as are Bassanio’s friend Graziano (Sorab Wadia) and Portia’s waiting maid Nerissa (Abigail Killeen). And so, too, are Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Michelle Uranowitz) and Lorenzo (Paul Spera), another friend of Bassanio’s.
The play’s light comedy — which involves, at different points, mistaken identity, and ridiculous suitors failing to solve the riddle they have to answer correctly in order to win Portia’s hand — ultimately makes Shylock’s defeat seem even more humiliating and cruel. The prologue underscores that, while an added final message advocating “mercy” bookends it, and sends the audience off with a message of hope and positivity.
This is the American premiere of the stylish and powerful production that Coonrod and her New York-based company, Compagnia de’ Colombari, first presented in Venice last year. Frank London of The Klezmatics has composed some appropriately atmospheric music, and he and five other musicians play it — as well as music by Corelli and Bartok — while seated at the back of the stage.
Lynda Gravatt, Frank Rodriguez, Michael Rogers, Steven Skybell and Sorab Wadia — actors of both genders and various races — play Shylock, and do a fine job, collectively, of conveying his humanity and his deep wounds, plus the rage and revenge-fueled meanness that go along with it. Using multiple actors seems a little heavy-handed, though, as a technique to universalize the story.
Shylock is, literally, a Jew living in Venice in the 16th century, but on a metaphorical level, he always has stood for anyone, in any era, who has been subject to oppression due to race, religion, gender, sexual preference, etc. I don’t need to see five different actors playing him — each donning the character’s golden sash in succession, with ritualized solemnity — to know that. So Coonrod’s strategy, though daring, also seemed, to me, to be a bit unnecessary.
You can’t argue with her results. This “Merchant of Venice” brings one of Shakespeare’s most provocative works to vivid life. I’m just not sure that much would be lost if only one actor played Shylock, each night.
“The Merchant of Venice” will be at the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University, through Oct. 1. Visit peakperfs.org.