Drugs and debt are the forces that drive the action in two very different morality plays now running on either side of the Potomac, and race is the nominal spindle upon which both narratives turn. In the new musical Torn From the Headlines, the drug trade and its attendant violence claim the happiness, if not the lives, of four young black men; in The Merchant of Venice, it’s the vagaries of the free market that do the damage, bankrupting a respectable merchant so that Shylock, the despised Jewish moneylender, may claim the pound of flesh promised as security for a loan.
OK, so Merchant of Venice isn’t really a morality playit’s an uneven romantic comedy with a few elements that, since Shakespeare’s day, have come to be seen as tragic. In a new production at Clark Street Playhouse, though, the Washington Shakespeare Company very nearly turns it into a morality play by setting it in a modern, Felliniesque Italy. It’s the late ’50s, and hedonism is the order of the day. Antonio (Richard Mancini), the merchant of the title, is an exquisitely refined sugar daddy, rouged and eye-shadowed like Aschenbach on the Lido. By all appearances, he borrows money from his old enemy Shylock (Brian Hemmingsen) not out of mere benevolent friendship but because he’s an indulgent old man with a weak spot for Bassanio (Stephen Angus), a former lover who’s outgrown the wildness, decided it’s time to settle down with a wife, and needs money to pursue her.
Likewise, Bassanio’s friends Lorenzo and Gratiano are not gentlemen but aimless young members of the jet set, and their assorted hangers-on are such a louche crowd of sybarites as to suggest not La Dolce Vita, which the company says it wants to evoke, but Satyricon. Henley establishes this rather quickly: In the opening scene, Salerio, Solanio, and Salarino (the three nearly indistinguishable characters who form the chorus) frolic poolside whilst the others catch up on gossip. Unmistakable body language says they’ve all been sleeping with one another, and when Bassanio and Lorenzo decide to pursue Portia and Jessica, Gratiano and the three bikini-clad boy-toys seem positively bereft. The execution may be a little heavy-handedthe S-men are forever prancing about in spandex or striking salacious poses, and Bill Bassett is the only one of them who doesn’t overact dreadfullybut depicting the Venetians as irresponsible demimondaines is an innovative way of underscoring the injustice of their triumph over Shylock. And it needs underscoring; we see Shylock’s hateful behavior as the understandable product of the worst kind of racial discrimination, but that notion is a modern one not intrinsic to the text despite all his brooding over the slights of others.
Angus and Hemmingsen give outstanding performances, all quiet dignity and nuanced expression. Angus is as good with the funny bits as with the serious ones, and he manages to indicate that Bassanio, though he’s settled down, still hasn’t entirely forgotten the fun of his dissipated youth. Hemmingsen knows perhaps better than any other performer in the area how effective understated rage can be, and how to use stillness as an acting tool. He makes Shylock loathsome, then demands respect and sympathy for him, and gets it. Christopher Wilson (Lorenzo) and Michelle Shupe (Shylock’s daughter Jessica) are nearly as good, though they’re ultimately less complex.
What doesn’t always work is Nanna Ingvarsson’s Portia. She’s great in the second half, where she dons pants and delivers that famously ironic courtroom lectureabout “the quality of mercy”just before she effectively destroys the moneylender. And she gives a beautiful reading of the tender little speech that comes just after Bassanio has won the right to her hand. But before intermission, when she’s still single, Portia seems a trifle ferocious. She’s not meant to be a pushover, but Ingvarsson plays her like a praying mantis, and you can’t help wondering what poor Bassanio is getting himself into.
Mancini never gets beyond the surface of Antonio, and Kila D. Burton’s zany take on Launcelot Gobbo, though it’s entertaining at first, eventually grates. The rest of the cast is either indifferent or awful; Quinn Hanchette’s overwrought Gratiano, particularly, leaves bite marks all over the scenery. In the courtroom sequence, you’ll wonder why Shylock doesn’t try to cut out his heart instead of Antonio’s. At least Henley keeps things moving, and he spreads his actors out, using all the nooks and crannies of Michael Murray’s expansive set so things never get boring.
Susan Anderson’s costumes do much to bolster Henley’s concept, and they’re great fun: flashy club clothes for Salerio et al., slick Armani-style jackets for Antonio and his peers, and more sedate togs for Shylock and Jessica. Portia’s shoe collection (especially the red pumps) and Bassanio’s sumptuous dressing gown are to die for. CP