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Theater Review (Queens, NY): Queens Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

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Queens Shakespeare's Founder and Executive Producer Nanette Asher directs her company's latest production of William Shakespeare’s (now) controversial "comedy," The Merchant of Venice, which opened this past weekend at their resident space in Flushing, the Bowne Street Community Church.

To begin with: This is a fascinating play (a personal favorite of mine), one that has been one of Shakespeare's most controversial works for centuries. Analysts have debated whether it is an anti-Semitic play or simply a play about anti-Semitism that reflects the prevalent view of Christian society in Elizabethan England. Others view it simply as a drama of hatred and revenge. To me, it is about the estrangement of Jews from Christian society and their desire for belonging.

Set in 16th century Venice, it tells the story of Shylock (Jonathan Emerson) and his bond to extract a pound of flesh from the wealthy merchant Antonio (Matthew Harris), the forfeiter of a debt. Shylock is intent on revenge not only for the loss of the money but for a lifetime of outsider status.

Sadly, Nanette Asher's production is not so fascinating.  It is hampered by sloppy direction and some downright baffling casting choices, especially the casting of the way too young Jonathan Emerson in the coveted role of Shylock; even more distressing was the casting of the highly inexperienced Nikki Bohm as the play's heroine, Portia.

The portrayal of Shylock is paramount throughout the play, mainly because we are torn between disliking him for his cruelty on one hand and empathizing with him because of the abuse he suffers on the other.  That's why the casting of Emerson in the role, played previously by the likes of Al Pacino, Sir Laurence Olivier, George C. Scott, and Hal Holbrook, is such a misstep. Emerson's performance is so off, ladling on the shtick, vocally and physically, that he sounds disconcertingly like a less than stellar comedian doing a bad Jackie Mason impression.

Bohm shows little competence in the role of Portia, lacking the command and quicksilver intelligence that a more experienced actress might have brought to the role or to the beautiful "quality of mercy" speech.

Most of the supporting cast seemed to be in a different play. For instance, Adam Gallinat, as Gratiano, chose to deliver all of his lines as if he were on a sitcom, while Kelly Addyman, as Launcelot, ran about the stage, screaming her lines as if she were in a Saturday Night Live sketch, with no attempt at subtlety.

A lot of the blame for these lackluster performances must go to director Asher, who seemed to just throw the actors up on stage and let them go crazy with no guidance or, dare I say, direction whatsoever.  

Thankfully, there was some good work from Leila Okafor (as Nerissa), Celeste Van Vroenhoven (as Shylock's daughter Jessica), Camilla Skoglie (as Salarino), and Matthew Harris, who although a little young himself for the role of the title character, managed to give a robust performance.  As good as they were, though, I still find it hard to recommend this production.

My BlogCritics colleague Hannah Marie Ellison remarked in a column a few months back that "bad theatre puts her in a bad mood."

Well, the Queens Shakespeare's production of The Merchant of Venice didn't put me in a bad mood, but it certainly didn't give me anything to cheer about either.

The Merchant of Venice runs until June 27th.

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  • WARNING: Based on the evidence, which he has not bothered to refute, Joseph Arthur Clay is a plagiarist. See here.