Ever since the African-American Shakespeare Company presented Julius Caesar earlier this year, I’ve been on a Shakespeare jag. Since the AASC’s production of Julius Caesar was such an unqualified winner, I’ve kept my eyes open for new takes on this material.
My brief survey suggests that modernist Shakespeare goes in a few predictable directions. There’re the folks who try too hard, forcing new wine in old skins, as it were. Others seem to think they’re smarter than the Bard. Lastly, there’re the rare gems of pure brilliance – which includes the Custom-Made Theatre Company’s Merchant of Venice, which opened this week.
Here, the failure of Antonio’s ships read as easily as the flat Facebook IPO.
This Merchant of Venice bills itself as “a stylistic cross between Mad Men and American Psycho.” While this characterization is right on the money, it doesn’t begin to touch how belly-laugh funny this play truly is. While some of the gags, such as Bassanio (Dashiell Hillman) and Antonio (Ryan Hayes) snorting coke together, were the equivalent of throw-away one-liners (albeit very good ones), the physicality of the production brought Shakespeare to entirely new levels.
While strutting their cells phones, investments and irony, the cast seemed so at home in this language that they brought the text to a whole new level. Even audience members who might otherwise struggle with the meaning would have no problem with this production because the characters’ body language was writ almost as loud as the text. Megan Briggs’ Portia could bring you to your knees just by her dismissal of the suitors alone. Parts of the play that merely seemed tedious became intentionally overwrought and hysterically funny in the hands of this stunningly competent cast.
The fact that this happened with Merchant of Venice – the play that no one seems to want to touch – is all the more remarkable. Who could imagine a funny Merchant of Venice? However, here, the failure of Antonio’s ships read as easily as the flat Facebook IPO. Likewise, the device of choosing caskets to determine a suitor (here morphed into selecting a flaah drive) seems entirely plausible – and very funny.
MORE SAN FRANCISCO THEATER: SF Playhouse moves to larger space
Catz Forsman gives us a new take Shylock. With his ill-fitting suit, poorly styled hair, and ungainly height, he’s clearly the odd man out. Small liberties were taken with the text, leaving the anti-Semitism intact, but making his fate more comprehensible to a modern audience. These changes worked well.
If this Merchant of Venice is any indication, the Custom Made Theatre is worth following.
The Merchant of Venice
By William Shakespeare
4 out of 5 stars
Custom Made Theatre Company
at Gough Street Playhouse
1622 Gough St (at Bush), San Francisco
July 6 – August 5, 2012
Directed by Stuart Bousel