PICTURED: Alan Waserman and Victoria Saitz star as Shylock and Jessica in the California Shakespeare Company’s production of The Merchant of Venice. Photo by Mike Marsalisi
That is an understatement when it comes to The Merchant of Venice, one of William Shakespeare’s most hotly debated plays. It raises questions about anti-Semitism, mercy, justice and loyalty, then leaves us to answer them for ourselves.
Onstage at the Elite Theatre through Nov. 3 is the California Shakespeare Company’s lively, minimalist production of the Shakespearean tragicomedy. Under the direction of William H. Fisher, the actors do a fine job of capturing moments of humor and levity. The meat of the play, however, is language and scenarios that run the gamut from resplendent and inspired to confounding and unsettling.
That juxtaposition lies between the light-hearted love stories of three couples and the darker tale revolving around Shylock, the money lender, and Antonio, the merchant in need of a loan. Shylock (played by the wonderful Alan Waserman) is a Jew in 16th-century Venice, which means he is an outsider who is maligned by the Christian ruling class, to which Antonio belongs.
The men have an acrimonious history, so when Antonio comes to borrow money, Shylock sets the terms impossibly high: If Antonio fails to repay the loan on time, Shylock will extract a “pound of flesh” from Antonio. Shylock’s blinding desire for revenge pits him as a villain and yet he is a victim of relentless persecution and grave humiliation. Antonio, who mocks Shylock one minute then sits at his mercy the next, can also be seen as both villain and victim.
Their conflict — between and within themselves — leads to a poignant courtroom scene, where Portia, an heiress disguised as a man, speaks of the “quality of mercy” in Antonio’s defense. That quality or, rather, the question of mercy is at the heart of The Merchant of Venice.
Nothing is clear cut, except, perhaps, the relationships between the young lovers. There is Antonio’s friend Bassario, played with finesse by Jesse Fair, and Portia, valiantly played by Victoria Saitz. (Saitz stepped into the role only days before opening night. For that reason, she sometimes read her lines off of note cards. Nonetheless, she did a very respectable job and one expects that she will be off-book by this weekend.) Saitz shines in her original role as Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, who runs off to marry Lorenzo, a Christian (the amiable Alexander Medlicott). The exceptional Olivia Heulitt plays Portia’s maid, Nerissa, who falls for Antonio’s friend Gratiano (an engaging Ben Blonigan).
The cast is made complete by Eric McGowan, Andrew Belmares and Evelyn Rose, who, like the majority of the cast, play multiple roles. McGowan and Belmares are at their best as the Duke of Venice and Solanio, while Rose beams brightest as Launcelot.
They are supported by a crew that includes fight choreographer Brandon Sharkey, prop master Monika Copeland and Fisher as costume and music designer. The set is stark, appointed only with a black curtain and very few props. The minimalism works, and a good case can be made that anything more would be superfluous. The exception is the period costumes, which are a feast of color.
The production is a worthwhile opportunity to see The Merchant of Venice in an intimate venue — all the better to set one’s mind and conscience upon its difficult themes. When all is said and done, we can wonder and debate about what was in Shakespeare’s heart when he wrote it 400 years ago, but what is most important is to see what is in our own.
The Merchant of Venice through Nov. 3 at the Elite Theatre Company, 2731 S. Victoria Avenue, Oxnard. For more information, call 805-483-5118 or visit www.theelite.org.