The quality of Merchant

"Another gem of the show is Alysa King’s portrayal of Portia, a rich heiress with a genuine and sassy confidence."


Ryan LaPlante, Erik Smith and Austin Schaefer in Vagabond’s production of The Merchant (Supplied)

Vagabond Theatre Company’s final production this season, The Merchant of Venice uses archetypical characters to drive its message home

Recent controversy over Vagabond Theatre’s latest production carries a pang of irony.

Posters advertising the show with an image evoking a Nazi party flag were deemed anti-Semitic by some campus groups and posters were removed from campus after complaints, starting the show off on unsure footing in some ways. Yet in others, the issue underscored the essence of director Nathaniel Fried’s direction with this Shakespearian comedy.

Working with a play as anti-Semitic as The Merchant of Venice is challenging. Intolerance, clearly, must be addressed carefully. Its persistence in society crawls under our skin and tears at our nerves when any warning signs to its presence surfaces. Do we turn away from it and praise benevolence instead? Can we use humour to heal wounds from its wrath? Vagabond’s bold confrontation of The Merchant of Venice’s anti-Semitic nature racks at these tensions. It forces contemplation on intolerance’s reality, roots and effects.

The rumours about this production are true. Shylock not only adorns a fake nose, but devilish horns and Dracula fangs—just in case the audience didn’t catch that there’s almost nothing sympathetic about his character.

In a strong performance by Ryan LaPlante, Shylock is domineering with a dash of humour in his cold calculation. His ridiculous characterization asks the audience to try on 16th-century-tinted glasses and understand the sentiment of the time. As Fried puts it, his portrayal aims to “expose the roots of modern anti-Semitism.” It’s a directorial choice that is sure to spark some conversations.

Another gem of the show is Alysa King’s portrayal of Portia, a rich heiress with a genuine and sassy confidence.

Matt McFetridge also stands out in his deliverance of Gratiano. He’s both cheeky and eloquent as the loyal friend of Antonio and Bassanio.

Comedic additions occasionally distract from the main action of the play, but it’s sharply serious at others. The two suitors who fail to court Portia toll side-kicks whose chiming choruses are very amusing. One is an over-sexed alpha male and the other the epitome of effeminacy.

In their variations of masculinity, the suitors are as abhorrently stereotypical as Shylock. They strengthen the theme of judgment within the play by showing a lighter side to the issue.

Set and blocking are used very effectively. Only a chair and table are used to alter the space of the theatre. The actors heighten drama by utilizing their space creatively. Costumes subtly mix past with present dress to blur the distinction between the two. This simplicity of the design and choreography add to the intimate atmosphere within Theological Hall’s Rotunda Theatre.

The Merchant of Venice is Vagabond’s third and final production this year. It was preceded by renditions of Romeo and Juliet and Richard III.

This production’s confrontational address of intolerance caps off a run of success in their mission; by bringing Shakespeare into contemporary times with cultural references, costumes and relevant social issues the company offers accessible Shakespeare to the Kingston community.

Overall, chemistry between the characters falls short at times but the production’s overall intention is clear. The Merchant of Venice’s anti-Semitic undertones are strongly embraced. In doing so, the production allows both separation and comparison between Shakespeare’s times and ours. It jarringly confronts the deep roots of intolerance and raises questions about its presence today.