Mechant of Venice at CustomMade worth seeing

(Left) Shylock being ridiculed in the square by Gatiano (Matt Gunnison), Lorenzo (Brian Martin), Antonio (Ryan Hayes) & Bssanio (Dashiell Hillman). (Above): Bassiano (Dashiell Hillman) swears total devotion to Portia (Megan Briggs).

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE by William Shakespeare. Directed by Stuart Bousel. CustomMade Theatre Group, Gough Street Playhouse, 1622 Gough Street, San Francisco. (510) 207-5774 or July 12 - August 5, 2012

A Daring Merchant of Venice at CustomMade.

A play is worth seeing, well worth seeing or must see. CustomMade’s modern take on The Merchant of Venice falls into the category of “worth seeing.” It is a well staged production with the actors in modern dress handling Shakespearean dialog with varying degrees of aptitude. The problems lie in the facts that it is a controversial play because of the anti-Semitism and the discrepancy between director Stuart Bousel’s stated purpose and the final image that is conveyed.

This is the first mounting of a Shakespearean play by CustomMade and the first San Francisco production in recent memory. It was produced in 2006 by California Shakespeare Company with this reviewer commenting, “It seems that the only reason Cal Shakes has mounted this play is to give noted innovative director Daniel Fish an opportunity to display his quirky touch. And that he does.

So it seems that may be the reason for CustomMade’s choice of Stuart Bousel as director. First he has chosen to set the play in present day Wall Street, truncated and reshuffled the text, cutting many of Shylock’s line and changing the emphasis to the lovers creating in his words a “charming romantic comedy." The PR packet also describes this version as “a stylistic cross between “Mad Men” and “American Pycho.”

Money, or rather lack of money, starts the ball rolling. Materially rich but cash poor merchant Antonio (a fine Ryan Hayes), is in deep depression when his dearest friend, young, profligate Bassanio (handsome Dasheill Hillman), importunes him for a loan to qualify as a suitor for the hand in marriage of beautiful, rich Portia (Megan Briggs). I suspect that we are to infer that the passionate kiss between the two “friends” means they are lovers and hence Antonio’s depression at losing Bassanio to Portia? Antonio obtains a loan of three thousand ducats from the hated Jew Shylock (Catz Forsman)) scheduled to be paid in three months or Antonio must forfeit a pound of flesh as payment for the debt.

Portia’s deceased father has set up obstacles in the path of those who seek her hand. In Shakespeare’s time there are three sealed caskets (made of gold, silver or lead) one contains the permission to marry Portia. The uses of Iphones, twitter and Facebook (?) are marvelous touches. In this play the caskets are replaced by flash drives and the right choice inserted into an Apple computer will tell the fate of the suitors. But for an inexplicable reason the suitors, the Prince of Morocco (Perry Aliado) and Prince of Arragon (Stefin Collins) are complete buffoons turning that scene into farce. Yes, it does create laughs, and levity is needed to break up the dramatic interludes but do such broad slapstick antics add depth or understanding?.

The second act leads to infamous trial with Portia disguised as a noted judiciary rescues Antonio from Shylock’s knife posed to take his pound of flesh. Megan Briggs nails the “quality of mercy” speech while Shylock ends up cringing being forced to give up his riches. Catz Forsman’s Shylock is unidimensial and does not do justice to the famous, Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Brian Martin as Lorenzo and Kim Saunders as the Jewess Jessica are a perfect match handling their complex relationship adroitly.

All this plays out on simple set with projections and musical interludes appearing at appropriate times. Custommade is noted for its daring productions and this Merchant of Venice is worth seeing but did not receive the usual standing ovation from its dedicated attendees. Running time about two hours with intermission.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

Courtesy of