No holds Bard: "Merchant," "2 Gents"

Contemporary bite for classic comedies in rad new readings

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The text is early Shakespeare – arguably his playwriting debut – and it shows. As an ambitious up-and-comer, he’s at pains to give the groundlings what they want: slapstick, risqué word-play, even an adorable pooch (here performed by Gertie, a local basset hound).     

Gertie’s co-stars are equally engaging, after their zoomorphic fashion: puppyish Valentine (Nadeem Phillip) and serpentine Proteus (Charlie Gallant), as the eponymous two gentlemen. Their inamoratae – Kate Besworth as a breathy, blushing Julia, and Adele Noronha as “holy, wise and fair” Silvia – discover more solidarity than rivalry in their interlocking love-triangles.

A forest scene ties up all the loose plot strands into a formulaically tidy “happy ending,” leaving the last words to the two reconciled gents and their (male) well-wishers. The females have nothing to say.

But their very silence allows director Bellis to tack on a wordless coda for Julia, Silva and the falsetto forest banditti. No spoiler here; suffice it to say it’s a wholly satisfying ending, and apt for present-day Vancouver.

As befits a crowd-pleasing Elizabethan comedy, though, Two Gents' most show-stealing moments are reserved for the clown characters. Chirag Naik, as Speed, executes near-impossible feats of physical comedy with balletic panache, all while rattling off a steady fusillade of punning banter. Andrew Cownden, as Launce, plays a slyly lugubrious “second banana” to Gertie’s deadpan drollery.

All these impressive talents (except Gertie) recur in Bard’s 2017 Merchant. But, true pro’s that they are, they refrain from upstaging the two towering performances at the core of the production: Warren Kimmel as Shylock and Olivia Hutt as Portia.

By the time he wrote this script, Shakespeare was already a well-established theatrical impresario. A clear-eyed, nuanced observer of human affairs, he was also a past master at veiling contemporary social and political critique under cover of other times and places.

The England of his day was in the throes of transition from a late feudal milieu of gentry and serfs to a proto-capitalist cockpit of bankers and merchants. To probe the ramifications of such a wrenching shift, what better proxy locale than Venice? As the mercantile hub of the Renaissance, it presents the consummate embodiment of cosmopolitanism and hubristic over-reach, with the concomitant backlash of dehumanisation.

These issues are as germane as ever in our own times, as daily headlines attest. So director Nigel Shawn Williams frames his production in edgy modernisms, from the opening scrim of trading screen code to the cool chic of wardrobe master Drew Facey’s high-end, catwalk-worthy costumes.

The titular merchant and his bon vivant cronies come off looking like smugly entitled Silicon Valley techie twerps. And Kimmel’s Shylock is no hook-nosed caricature; rather a suavely professional hedge fund shark in Brooks Brothers gabardine (but with a yarmulke discreetly bobby-pinned to his razor-cut coif).

Portia, after her initial inexplicably ditzy swoon over a gold-digging Venetian swain (the exquisitely reptilian Charlie Gallant, again), shows herself more than a match for her ruthless money-lender adversary in the Venetian courtroom scene. The value-neutral, hair-splitting literalism of contractual law, so central to the mercantile world order of Venice, sets the stage for a high-drama, cat-and-mouse battle of wits, ending in the utter annihilation of Shylock’s humanity.

And yet, and yet…

In the midst of her bravura drag-turn, Hull’s Portia delivers, with touching sincerity, her famous “gentle rains of heaven” paean to the Quality of Mercy. And all the patched-up marriages in the play’s requisite comedic “happy ending” coda bear tell tale scars of their recent fractures.

As for Shylock, for all his bloodthirstiness, there’s no denying the stony justice of his moral calculus: “If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute.”

When his tormenters bait him for the loss of his child, Williams has Shylock perched up in a tower window chanting (with pitch-perfect cantorial intonation) the mourner’s kaddish. At the end of the trial, with Shylock stripped of daughter, ducats and dignity, Portia taunts him “Are you content, Jew?” His shattered whisper, “I am content,” has to be just about the most heartbreaking moment in the annals of “comedy.”

Next month, Bard will close out its 2017 season with a fleeting (September 6th -15th) rerun of Vancouver playwright Mark Leiren-Young’s 1996 hit Shylock. The soul-searching monologue will feature Kimmel in the timely and all-too-near-the-bone role of a Jewish actor starring in Shakespeare’s most problematic play. Boca del Lupo’s Sherry Yoon directs. Not to be missed.

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