There’s nothing like a new director to lead a company in new directions. Sharee Lemos, a winner at the Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) Awards, has been on the scene for a while, working in all genres, but The Merchant of Venice is her first venture with Ronnie Bell’s Syracuse Shakespeare Festival.
Merchant is Shakespeare’s most controversial play, so much so that many companies shun it. The portrayal of Shylock the moneylender has endured more argument than any other figure in the Bard’s output. Then there’s the matter of tone. Merchant is classed as a “comedy,” while most productions make the thing ponderous. Lemos’ light hand addresses both questions. Her Shylock is an original piece of work, and she gets performers to put the right snap in lines that are supposed to be funny. A beautiful woman smirks, “God made him a man—let him pass for a man.”
This Merchant returns to the company’s old venue at the Syracuse University Warehouse on 350 W. Fayette St., off Armory Square. Thankfully, the site was remodeled more than a year ago, with new seats on either side of the performance area. Shortcomings with lighting are not completely overcome, but the place is more comfortable and attractive than it was.
The show’s rich production values, especially Barbara Toman’s lush and expressive costumes, seem at variance with the intimacy of the space. The costumes are not only attractive, notably for the courtroom scene, but they also coordinate perfectly with the status and mood of the character.
This mounting was intended for a larger space that was unavailable at show time. Lemos prudently pulls back sweeping gestures and high volume. This is a conversational Merchant of Venice.
That conversation is measured and precise, however. Lemos trained dozens of applicants for the English-Speaking Union’s Shakespeare Recitation contest, assuring that every player here honors the poetry while retaining heightened American stage diction. There’s no declamation. Words are to be understood.
Unlike other Shakespearean plays, Merchant begins with a cluster of characters, all with Italian names ending in “o,” which makes the exposition a bit tricky. Lemos helps us sort things out by giving each player an identifying body set and stylized movement, almost like an understated mime. Tall, forthright Antonio (Joe Pierce), the merchant of the title, is an alpha male that others gather around for strength. Serious, well-dressed Salerio (Tom Minion) bespeaks maturity, while frenetic Gratiano (Ian Cook) seems ready to take flight. When Antonio’s handsome but impoverished pal Bassanio (Austin Arlington) says that he needs 3,000 ducats to press his suit for the hand of lovely Portia, Antonio says he would like to comply but all his assets are tied up with foreign ventures at the moment. Still, as his credit is good, Antonio should be able get a loan until, literally, his ship comes in.
Under the quaint ethics of early Christendom, a believer might sell something and make a profit, but lending money for interest was taboo. That financial service fell to the Jewish minority, which contributed—hypocritically—to their unpopularity. Shylock is ready to deal but he’s not looking for loan-shark interest but rather, in the famous phrase, a pound of Antonio’s flesh. The Merchant, confident that he has invested well, agrees. Gratuitous and ugly remarks about Jews were ubiquitous in Shakespeare’s time and persisted in English literature down until the days of T.S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway. Shylock was presented as a grotesque cartoon 150 years ago, but no one today thinks the text’s lines support such a portrayal.
Auburn-based Jack Sherman, together with director Lemos, gives us an entirely new Shylock, one who appears first as a bemused ironist. In an early speech this Shylock brushes off the insults he must endure as the cost of doing business, not something that wounds or diminishes him. Of middle height, Shylock displays a straight-haired beard, different from everyone else’s, and walks with a mincing gait, although he can’t be much above age 50. Sherman keeps Shylock’s blue eyes open wide, almost gaping, as if perpetually surprised at the cruel absurdities the world keeps throwing his way. Thus Shylock enters the famous, “Hath not a Jew hands . . .” speech with a kind of world-weary resignation, rather than anger or resentment.
Later this approach will limit Shylock from recognizing his fate and suffering, although he gets nothing but reversal. His lovely daughter Jessica (Lynn Barbato King) leaves the faith to run off with a Christian, Lorenzo (Michael King), and takes her inheritance with her. When the court decrees his reversal of fortune, Shylock looks stunned; things could get this bad for him. But he does not look changed and never gives a signal of different behavior to come.
The deliverer of Shylock’s comeuppance is Portia, one of the best female roles in Shakespeare, played by the director’s daughter, SALT-winner Katie Lemos Brown. Portia’s sidekick is Nerissa, portrayed by Sophia Beratta, who in a casting good fortune could pass as Lemos Brown’s sister. Some of the comedy, neglected elsewhere, comes from their girl-to-girl chat. Coordinate with the spirit of this production in a small space, Portia understates the famous “Quality of Mercy” speech that many kids used to have to memorize in high school. This Portia is no avenging angel but rather a smooth, self-confident operator, even though she is dressed all in black to look like a male jurist.
What noise there is in this Merchant comes from an assortment of comic players of different status. Booming-voiced James Sanders, clad in Muslim garments and sporting a nose ring, dominates the scene as the swaggering Prince of Morocco, a disappointed suitor who makes the wrong choice in a pick-the-box contest. The Prince of Arragon (Keith Arlington), squealing in a curly white Santa beard, does no better. Confused Launcelot Gobbo (Phil Brady) comes on like a vaudeville act with his blind father (Lanny Freshman). Veteran player Freshman renews his versatility credits by reappearing with a new costume and body set as rich Tubal, whose commanding presence supports Shylock.
Having directed musicals and contemporary dramas, Lemos clearly belongs to the Shakespeare-as-entertainment school. By working hard with players not usually linked with Shakespeare, including Joe Pierce, Katie Lemos Brown, Jack Sherman, James Sanders, Tom Minion and Lanny Freshman, she gets these old bones to rise up and dance.
This production runs through Sunday, Feb. 24. See Times Table for information.