The Shakespeare Company and collaborators put on a strong version of ‘The Merchant of Venice’

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Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is argued to be an antisemitic play. It is full of language and dialogue that demonizes the sole Jewish character in the story, Shylock. In the decision for the Shakespeare Company, with support from Hit & Myth and the University of Calgary School of Creative and Performing Arts, Division of Drama to present The Merchant of Venice, I was curious to see if they would address or creatively adapt the parts of the play that are not reflective of our time.

The production is a loyal production of the original text, but casts Shylock as a woman which changes the play, leaning towards a more sympathetic Shylock. It is an interesting choice to witness, especially when strong women go head to head, as Portia (Jamie Konchak) and Shylock (Seana McKenna) do in the courthouse scene.

The Merchant of Venice tells of Bassanio who seeks to marry Portia but needs money to do so. He receives help from his friend Antonio, who borrows from the Jew Shylock, and agrees to a bond with a high price. If Antonio does not pay back his loan on time, Shylock is entitled to a pound of his flesh.

The production features powerhouse actors such as McKenna as Shylock and Dean Paul Gibson as Antonio. Both are strong and McKenna’s performance is nuanced and subtle. It is almost as if Shylock should be a female role, always. Konchak is a great anchor as Portia and Sarah Wheeldon is lovely as Nerissa and her singing is so enjoyable. Alexander Ariate is of note as Launcelot Gobbo as his character is a bit cheeky and Ariate hits the notes well. Haysom’s Bassanio is strong and emotional. Jaden Sullivan’s Lorenzo was a bit flat and could use a bit more emotiveness.

It’s set on a gray and rugged stage designed by Jennifer Lee Arsenault that allows the characters to draw on the walls in chalk, which makes for a nice touch. Arsenault also designed the costumes which were so well suited to each character, Portia and Nerissa in satin gowns and Shylock in a demure black dress. Jessica by contrast is wearing white.

Peter Moller’s sound design and composition elevates the play and lighting design by Narda McCarroll really brings energy and drama to the court scene.

Director Carey Perloff plays to everyone’s strengths and gives the production great balance. This production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is worth it alone for McKenna’s performance and Shylock’s famous speech. It’s that speech that is worth pondering.

The Shakespeare Company with Hit & Myth and UCalgary Drama’s presentation of The Merchant of Venice runs at the Reeve Theatre until December 8th. More information and tickets are available online.

Photo Credits: Mackenzie McDonald, Josh Olson and Seana McKenna in The Merchant of Venice, 2019. Set and costume design by Jennifer Lee Arsenault, lighting design by Narda McCarroll. Photo by Tim Nguyen.

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