If there’s ever a reason to get a Manhattanite out to New Jersey for the sake of theater, this play is that reason. Karin Coonrod’s The Merchant of Venice, playing at Montclair State University, is beautiful, moving, and delicately spins a portrayal of hatred so chilling that it knocks you backwards in your seat.
A wall of particle board looms behind the stage – unimpressive in the full light of the theater, but becoming much more once the lights dim. The words of Launcelot, Shylock’s servant – here called Lancilotto, played by Francesca Sarah Toich – are spoken in Venetian Italian with translations projected high above her as she dances around the stage in all white, wearing a Venetian mask and a codpiece, reciting Renaissance Italian poetry for a captive audience. This strange, yet utterly entrancing image is but a taste of what the show delivers.
The sheer visual aesthetics are a large component of this production. Each character is dressed in white linens and the on-stage band in black. The light shifts from blue to red to black, and white papier-mâché festival heads dance against the particle board. Shylock is firmly set apart by a singular golden band that wraps around his waist, and the jurors and jury of Venice who come to judge him wrap themselves in red – a visually alarming sight. Though this play is technically deemed a Shakespearean comedy–ending in multiple marriages–you will find it harder to laugh as the show goes on. Each scene is darker than the last, and Coonrod taps into darkest parts of the play to find something entirely new and thrilling.
The Compagnia de’ Colombari bring to life all of the classic characters of The Merchant of Venice. Portia (Linda Powell) and her handmaid Nerissa (Abigail Killeen) are delightful to watch. Toussaint Jeanlouis as Antonio masterfully and subtly transitions his character from the self-sacrificing friend to an unrecognizable bully. But most intriguingly, this production features a Shylock with five faces. Coonrod’s Shylock is played by five different actors who don’t conform to a single gender, race, or ethnicity. Each Shylock is brilliantly jaded and vengeful, and each brings their own new facets to the character as well. Lynda Gravatt, the only female portrayal, is strong and self-collected in a way the others aren’t. She speaks in measured tones, and her shadow is cast back behind her, two stories tall, lending her even more power. Frank Rodriguez brings out Shylock’s softer side: the troubled father of a motherless child. And Steven Skybell as Shylock on trial is magnificent, conjuring tears and screams of desperation that haunt you after the curtains have closed.
Though the production is mostly in English, it very much reflects the rich cultural diversity of the Compagnia, as well as the Venetian setting. Snatches of Spanish, Arabic, Italian, and more are woven into the narrative, and music frequently interrupts or enhances the story – most memorably, the Venetian revelers with carnival masks and warbling, operatic voices who steal the show about halfway through the play. The beautiful cacophony of languages and music flesh out the dark and magical realm that Coonrod casts.
Coonrod encapsulates the problematic dichotomy of The Merchant of Venice in her production, which opens with costumed dancing and musical merriment and closes with a hair-raising confrontation of the most disturbing questions posed by the play. She takes us miles away from our homes to different cultures, lands, and centuries, and yet reminds us of the evils of humanity that still knock on our doors today.