At outdoor cafe tables topped with Cinzano umbrellas the actors loll, idly watching video screens arranged around an open-work structure’s beams like townhall clocks at the points of the compass, facing the audience. Watching as a platinum-bewigged young woman, dolled up in loud fashion but draped in a sleek tawny fur with beige boots, flops into a chair, pushes back her sunglasses, reaches for her bag as if a beached globe-trotter, and impatiently tosses wads of play money onto the stage ... Watching as a bearded financier doffs “the badge” of his “Jewish gabardine” to bathe in cash as he reclines in a dumpster ... Watching as a suitor woos his intended by hefting a black plastic garbage bag of loot to throw his hat in the ring.
Actors laconically watching these vignettes, while smoking, drinking and chit-chatting in blank verse: this is The Merchant of Venice, as conceived by Daniel Fish for CalShakes in Orinda, a play about money and fashion.
The Bard certainly meant his comedy of love to be centered around allegories of lending and borrowing, and of reclaiming forfeited debts, with adroit business surrounding the choosing of metal coffers—here, shiny carrying cases—for a betrothal, the giving—and furtive giving again—of rings as tokens of endless love, and the bonding of a debt, meant to finance another’s offer of a bride-price, with a pound of flesh close to the heart. This is shown with all the trappings of ultra-contemporary fashion—“bravery,” as The Bard would put it—to dress up the intrigues and counter-plots of a chatty menage that ends up together at the end on a deflating air bed, a polymorphous perverse wedding night to end a romantic comedy hinging on a cross-dressed Humanist scholar finely parsing a point
This production has the virtue of being able to play self-consciously with its many conceits, matching its sometimes astringent, sometimes tongue-in-cheek air of world-weariness with a careless (if not exactly carefree) sense of tossing off the most elaborate lines and situations of the original with the more elaborated fixings of Fish’s conception. But the results are mixed. At times streamlined and clear, at others bogged down by too many asides and interruptions in the guise of business, the offhand quality of the actors (best represented by Jenny Bacon as Portia, watching the dialogues of her fellows on the big screen with drooping eyes and acerbic smile like a distracted traveler in an airport, or lipsync’ing a movie version of Merchant on her laptop, which we see above the stage) reduces the moments of engagement to events to be idly watched. It’s a kind of feed-back that can make the actors come on a bit soap opera-ish when it’s finally their turn to deliver, playing scales or hitting a single whole note instead of sounding the semitones of a developing character.
The trouble lies with the often clever direction, which succeeds in outwitting itself. The cast is quite capable, with CalShakes regulars like Delia MacDougall (always a trouper), staunch Andy Murray, sly Danny Sheie and T. Edward Webster joined by Bacon, David Chandler (a business-like Shylock, who moonlights as a Jewish stand-up comedian at intermission’s close), Andrew Weems (a fine Antonio), Nick Westrate (who plays the other suitors as well as golden boy Bassanio), Max Gordon Moore and new face Elvy Yost (who in a good bit as Shylock’s daughter Jessica converted to Christianity, sings an old Sunday School number: “Jesus Loves Me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so!"). And the staging, with all its consumer gimmicks, proceeds from modern dramaturgy.
But it becomes Modern Theater Lite: despite fitful flashes of illumination, with all the “events” (or “attractions” as they were called on the Russian experimental stage) the self-distancing gets too involved—with itself. All the sense of an incestuous milieu fizzles into mere self-consciousness and tricked-up fun instead of reflection—or even refraction. With all its twists and turns, the angle isn’t acute. It’s as straight as a suburban boulevard, suitable for commuting or cruising, but in any case a drive through, with too few points of interest to take attention away from the distraction of the accessories, the “optional features.”