2016 marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death. To help mark the occasion, Long Beach Shakespeare Company is presenting his most enduringly controversial work, "The Merchant of Venice," now through June 18.
The production underscores the two debates scholars and audiences alike have had over the play during the last century, at least.
One is the question of whether "The Merchant of Venice" is one of the Bard's comedies, as LB Shakespeare Company's press releases maintain, or a tragedy? It is true the play contains several classic elements of Shakespeare's comedies: young lovers in convoluted relationships, women disguising themselves as men, and a person of wealth who employs an elaborate contest to find a worthy suitor.
But the play also incorporates the deadly serious plight of Shylock, a Jewish moneylender out to punish the Catholic businessman Antonio (the merchant of the title) for perceived anti-Semitic slights. Shylock gets his chance when Antonio finds himself unable to pay back 3,000 ducats he has borrowed from the lender. As a penalty, Shylock demands "a pound of flesh" be carved out from over Antonio's heart.
Shylock's eventual comeuppance has long fueled a second argument over whether Shakespeare was anti-Semitic himself. Some historians today believe that "The Merchant of Venice" was actually Shakespeare's more compassionate response to Christopher Marlowe's undoubtedly anti-Semitic but very popular tragedy "The Jew of Malta," written a few years earlier.
This current production doesn't resolve the question of whether the play should be more accurately termed a comedy or a tragedy. Rather, it walks a fine line between the two. The critical and single best element of artistic director Helen Borgers' staging is Ari Agbabian's performance as Shylock. While he powerfully illustrates his character's wrath, Agbabian makes clear both how justified and how unreasonable Shylock is with great sensitivity.
The Christian majority among Shakespeare's contemporaries were quick to judge the moneylender as the villain, but Antonio (also sensitively played by company regular Cort Huckabone) is just as conniving, if ultimately more remorseful. It is Shylock's unwillingness to be merciful when mercy is being begged of him that condemns him, and this unwillingness can be a trait of Jews and Christians alike.
The rest of the cast is composed of a mix of seasoned and more novice actors, as is usually the case with LB Shakespeare Company and some other local theatres. Although this is admirable in many regards, it can make for moments of dramatic imbalance. This is true of several scenes in "The Merchant of Venice," most involving the supporting characters of Antonio's and his friend Bassanio's pals. However, Holly Bittinger is a lovely and focused standout as the heiress Portia, while Ketty Citterio is a straight-faced hoot reminiscent of comedienne Kristen Wiig in several small roles.
Dana Leach's costumes are impressively detailed and seemingly period-perfect. The scenic design and lighting are pretty straightforward, which helps keep the focus on Shakespeare's somewhat schizophrenic story. Naturally, Shylock's infamous scale still makes its appearance. Composer Edmund Velasco contributes some spare yet effective music, including a pair of original songs.
"The Merchant of Venice" will not be performed on Friday, June 3, due to First Friday events on Atlantic Avenue. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit LBShakespeare.org or call (562) 997-1494.