Last weekend the folks at Parkside’s theatre department put on a rousing performance of Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.” Except this showing was a little different. Through blood, seat, tears, and what could only be called “much gnashing of teeth” the Drama Club performed a feat of thespian strength that would make Hercules jealous. The troupe managed to pare down a four-hour play into a tightly choreographed piece of only a little over an hour-and-fifteen-minutes. Considering how extremely dense the source material was one can only imagine the hoops that were hopped through to get this show into shape for opening night.
The story follows a young Venetian, named Bassanio, who needs a loan of three thousand ducats so that he can marry Portia, a rich Venetian heiress. He goes to his friend Antonio, a merchant. Except Antonio is short on money because all his wealth is tied up in his fleet which is currently at sea, so Antonio goes to a Jewish money lender named Shylock, who hates Antonio because of his Anti-Semitic behavior towards him.
Despite this, Shylock agrees to make a short-term loan, but in a moment of dark humor, he makes a morbid condition-the loan must be repaid in three months or Shylock will take a pound of flesh from Antonio. Antonio agrees, confident that his ships will arrive home on time.
Because of the terms of Portia’s father’s will, all suitors must choose from three caskets made of gold, silver, and lead respectively, one of which contains a picture of her. If he chooses correctly, he may marry her, if not he must vow never to marry or court another woman. As Bassanio prepares to go to Belmont for the test, his friend Lorenzo secretly elopes with Shylock’s daughter, Jessica. Bassanio chooses the casket made of lead, which contains her picture, and Portia happily agrees to marry him immediately.
Meanwhile, two of Antonio’s ships have been lost at sea and his creditors are pressuring him to pay up. Word comes back to Bassanio of Antonio’s crisis, and he hurries back to Venice to help his friend, leaving Portia behind. Portia follows him, with her maid, Nerissa, disguising themselves as a lawyer and his clerk. When Bassanio arrives, the date to pay back Shylock has already passed. Even when Bassanio offers much more than the amount in repayment, almost double what was agreed upon, Shylock, now enraged at the loss of his daughter to Lorenzo, insists upon his pound of Antonio’s flesh in his bloodlust against the Christians. The Duke doesn’t intervene, citing the conditions of the contract.
Portia comes to the rescue in her disguise to defend Antonio in court. Given the authority of judgment by the Duke, Portia decides that Shylock can have his pound of flesh, if he can keep from spilling Christian blood, which is against the law. Since it is clear that this would be impossible without killing Antonio, Shylock’s suit is dropped. Moreover, for conspiring to commit murder against a Venetian citizen, Portia, playing lawyer to a “T”, orders that Shylock should forfeit over his entire fortune, half to go to the city of Venice, the other half to Antonio.
Antonio, in a clever twist, returns his share of the wealth to Shylock, under the condition that he gives it as a dowry to his disowned daughter, Jessica. To add insult to injury, Shylock must convert to Christianity. Impoverished, shamed, and with no alternative, Shylock accepts. News arrives that Antonio’s surviving ships have returned safely to Venice. With the exception of Shylock, all celebrate a happy ending to the entire ordeal.
The production was not without its hiccups, however. A wardrobe malfunction here, a stuttered line there (having been on stage myself I know the feeling), but the cast carried themselves through the show with a professional grace even with these missteps. No production is free of blemishes. Even if the audience is unaware of them and believes everything to be perfect, the actors and actresses will find “something” to improve on. This is the mark of an artist, never satisfied and always tuning the instruments of their craft. Kudos, UW-P Drama Club, and Bravo!
Article by James Burns