Preview: <em>The Merchant of Venice</em> By Seattle Shakespeare Company

For love or for money. Welcome to Venice, Italy, where Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice interconnects with tales of friendship, love, family, business, and intolerance. As they come alive, complex and memorable characters grapple with surprising contemporary issues. Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production runs March 20-April 15 at the Center Theatre located on the Seattle Center campus.

The Bard’s tragicomedy offers a lens through which we can scrutinize racism, justice, mercy, antisemitism, sexism, economic marginalization, religious law, and civil society. Officially, The Merchant of Venice is categorized as a comedy, but it also contains tragic elements. It offers a look through a lens in which we judge others, situations, politics, ourselves and more.

The wealthy heiress Portia is forced to set her suitors a challenge for her hand in marriage. Bassanio, a young Venetian, needs three thousand ducats so that he can woo her. He borrows the money from his friend, Antonio, a merchant of Venice who makes his money from trading fine goods carried to and fro in his sailing ships. All would be fine except Antonio has taken out a loan from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, on the assurance that his ships will make it back to the city. They don’t, and Shylock demands repayment with a pound of Antonio’s flesh.

 Jason Sanford as the Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice. (Photo by HMMM Productions.) on equality365

Jason Sanford as the Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice. (Photo by HMMM Productions.)

If you’re wondering about the comedy in the play, look to Launcelot Gobbo, servant to Shylock, One of the Bard’s theatrical fools, he possesses a crude philosophy and a rude wit. He uses big words and misapplies them most ingenuously. He is good-natured, full of fun, and rejoices in a practical jest.

Blending romance, humor, and gripping spectacle, The Merchant of Venice also features some of Shakespeare’s most highly-charged scenes and smartest characters. While The Merchant of Venice is considered among Shakespeare’s greatest plays, Shylock is regarded as one of his meatiest, most memorable characters.

Universal themes are central to understanding The Merchant of Venice as a play and identifying Shakespeare’s social and political commentary. On the one hand, the play tells us that love is more important than money, mercy is preferable to revenge, and love lasts forever.

Katya Landau as Jessica and Kevin Kelly as Lancelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice. (Photo by HMMM Productions.)

Katya Landau as Jessica and Kevin Kelly as Lancelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice. (Photo by HMMM Productions.)

Although the play has been dated as early as 1594 and as late as 1598, director Desdemona Chiang sets the play in present day during the December holidays of a growing and affluent multicultural city. “We will explore capitalism, credit, and lending by transposing these themes into interpersonal relationships, where financial and economic ideas are humanized,” said Chiang.

The Merchant of Venice is often regarded as a problematic play for its unfavorable portrayal of Shylock the Jew,” Chiang continues. “Most people tend to focus on trying to reconcile the play’s uncomfortable anti-Semitic elements when assessing its relevance. But to me, The Merchant of Venice is a story of economic inequity and the problematic reflection of money as human currency.”

Seattle audiences may remember Chiang’s acclaimed direction of Measure for Measure for SSC. FYI: This is the fourth time in its history that SSC has produced The Merchant of Venice.

Cast in the role of Shylock, Amy Thone portrays the character as a female. Darragh Kennan plays the merchant Antonio, Jennifer Lee Taylor portrays the wealthy heiress Portia, who later in the play cross-dresses as a man to portray Antonio’s lawyer, and Richard Sloniker plays the role of Bassanio. Other actors in the ensemble will play multiple roles.

The Merchant of Venice is packed with memorable lines and expressions we use every day: I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? (Shylock); In the twinkling of an eye.
(Launcelot); Love is blind. (Jessica); The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven (Portia); All that glisters is not gold.
(Duke of Morocco).

NOTE Bassanio borrows 3,000 ducats from Shylock to woo Portia. In present day, that’s roughly $530,000. As for the pound of flesh, according to a recent article in Wired magazine, a body could be worth up to $45 million — calculated by selling the bone marrow, DNA, lungs, kidneys, and of course, the heart.

Production Team
Desdemona Chiang (Director)
Shawn Ketchum Johnson (scenic design)
Christine Tschirgi (costume design)
Geoff Korf (lighting design)
Evan Mosher (sound design)
Robin Macartney (Props Designer)
Kate Wisniewski (Text Coach)
Kalea Salvador (Assistant Director)

The Cast and Characters
Trick Danneker (Lorenzo, a close friend of both Bassanio and Antonio)
Lindsay W. Evans (Nerissa, Portia’s lady-in-waiting and confidante)
Sharon Barto Gouran (Bellina, an aide in Portia’s household)
Tim Gouran (Gratiano, a good friend of Bassanio)
Kevin Kelly (Lancelot Gobbo, a clown and servant to Shylock)
Darragh Kennan (Antonio, a Venetian merchant of considerable wealth)
Katya Landau (Jessica, Shylock’s daughter)
Carter Rodriquez (Tubal, friend of Shylock/Duke of Venice, As judge over the court case between Shylock and Antonio/Old Gobbo, Launcelot’s father, who is blind.)
Jason Sanford (Salerio, friend of Antonio /Prince of Morocco, a Moorish prince who seeks Portia’s hand in marriage–responsible for the expression “All that glitters is not gold)
Richard Sloniker (Bassanio, the romantic lead who borrows money to woo Portia)
Zachary Taxdahl (ensemble)
Jennifer Lee Taylor (Portia, the heroine of this play, a wealthy and beautiful women who is desired by many, so much so that her father has devised an ingenious test all suitors must perform to win her hand in marriage.)
Amy Thone (Shylock, a successful Jewish moneylender who is much maligned over his religion and the practice charging interest.)
Carlos Wegener-Sobrero (Solanio, friend of Antonio /Duke of Aragon, an arrogant Spanish nobleman who also attempts to win Portia’s hand)

Seattle Shakespeare Company presents The Merchant of Venice March 20-April 15, 2018 at the Center Theatre, 305 Harrison Street, Seattle, WA 98109 (Previews March 20, 21, 22/ Opening Night Fri., March 23). Performance times: Wednesday-Saturday at 7:30pm with selected Saturdays at 2pm, selected Sundays at 2pm and 7:30pm, and a special intergenerational matinee at 10:30am on Wednesday, April 4; tickets range from $25-$55. call Seattle Shakespeare Company box office at (206) 733-8222 or go online at Discount tickets are available for groups of ten or more.

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Starla Smith

Starla Smith

Starla Smith is a career journalist, writing features for such publications as The New Yorker, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Daily News, The Des Moines Register, Vibe and a prize-winning Gannett Newspaper. She helped launch Theater Week Magazine and eventually became its publisher. As a regular contributor to Playbill, her interviews and photos were featured in Playbill and Playbill-on-line. Smith was featured in the New York Times "Style" section for her "Word Portraits," specialized tributes, speeches, and presentation profiles. And she covered theater and features for City Search, Digital City, and the Tena Duberry WOW! Radio show. She previously served as astrology guru for Out Magazine, and she hastens to assure her readers that "Starla" is indeed her real name.

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