Theater Review: THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (Invictus Theatre Co. in Chicago)

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by Lawrence Bommer on October 22, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


This show can never be nice: Along with The Taming of the Shrew, a comedy built squarely on misogyny, The Merchant of Venice, a tragicomedy festering with anti-Semitism, remains the Bard’s most problematic play. But Shakespeare wrote it. Felt from all sides, there’s humanity to spare. Truth overcomes prejudice as an unparalleled observer distills the essential emotions behind every conflict.

You just need to trust the text and find the right context — as Invictus Theatre does by setting the action in fascist Italy circa 1938. Shylock’s tormentors are now Mussolini’s monstrous minions.

What was never broken works again, here pitted against the backdrops of the Nazi’s Kristallnacht, Britain’s capitulation to Hitler at Munich, and the thuggery of jackbooted Black Shirts. The ultimate punishment for a Jewish money-lender, who in his “merry sport” desires a pound of flesh from his hated rival, is not just the loss of Shylock’s fortune and his daughter or his forced conversion to Christianity but to wear the Yellow Star of David in a death camp.

Shakespeare could hardly have imagined so much organized evil.

But Merchant of Venice is much more than just an unedifying tale of thwarted revenge. It contains four love connections (Portia and Bassanio, Nerissa and Gratiano, Lorenzo and Jessica, and, yes, Bassanio and title character Antonio, a fond friend who would do much more than just borrow 3,000 ducats for his treasured Bassanio).

Perhaps too generously Shakespeare throws in fairy-tale trappings like the courtship of the caskets for the hand of Portia. Waxing realistic, he ends a fully freighted drama with sexual satire: A woman must disguise herself to prove her superior jurisprudence, and two engagement rings are willfully mislaid.

As the tones warrant, director Charles Askenaizer takes these seemingly warring elements equally seriously or frivolously. It takes a generous 160 minutes to spin out four disparate plots.

As ever, the Bard’s chief interest is to chronicle the once and future enmity between two implacable foes — Chuck Munro’s credit-challenged Antonio and Joseph Beal’s hurt and hurting moneylender Shylock, unhinged by a lifetime of cumulative humiliation. Both are irresistibly real and mutually exclusive, with Martin Diaz-Valdes’s hapless Bassanio anguished as he sees his bosom buddy Antonio threatened by borrowed time as well as borrowed money. As the perfidiously deserting daughter Jessica, Courtney Feiler conveys enough guilt to make her bearable. Jack Morsovillo brings an astute accompaniment to his guitar-playing Launcelot Gobbo.

If anyone in this cruel comedy can resolve its rifts, it’s Julia Badger’s resilient Portia: Her “quality of mercy” speech seizes the moral high ground to eloquently endorse reconciliation. In contrast to her common-sense compassion and the sprightly sensibility of Madeline Pell’s Nerissa, the predations of daughter-stealing Lorenzo (Travis Shanahan) and Glenn Thompson’s excessively nasty Gratiano seem as gratuitous as ever.

With the exception of a clumsy rendition of “Where is Fancy Bred?,” the revelations of a new old work explode again. Invictus’s 13-member ensemble are on top of every turn. Seldom has the taunting terrorism and knee-jerk hostility of Shakespeare’s un-Christian haters been so trenchantly exposed. Bittersweet is how The Merchant of Venice will always and inevitably feel.

photos by Brian McConkey

The Merchant of Venice
Invictus Theatre Co.
The Buena at Pride Arts Center
4147 N. Broadway
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3;
Mon at 7:30 (dark on 11/4)
ends on November 17, 2019
for tickets, visit Invictus

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