Stanford Women* in Theater’s “Merchant of Venice” shakes Shakespeare up

Nov. 23, 2016, 8:31 a.m.

William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” is a difficult play to produce. Although riddled with lighthearted contests and lover’s shenanigans, the core of the storyline is steeped in deep rooted anti-Semitism and systematic injustice. And to produce this play in the wake of a national election – permeated by derision and hatred – makes it an even tougher sell. Stanford Women* in Theater should be commended for attempting to tackle Shakespeare’s play; however, ‘problem plays’ cannot have problems in production. While there are a number of enjoyable moments throughout, the staging is troubled by classic pitfalls of performance: tedious scenes, over-the-top gesticulation, and intermittent poor diction that hinders audience comprehension. Despite hitches in timing and staging, the production is continuously revitalized by two things: the actors’ faithful commitment to delivering the brilliance of Shakespeare’s poetry and Raine Hoover’s stunning performance in the role of Shylock.

In the play Shylock, the widely hated Jewish moneylender, is mistreated, seeks personal revenge, and is then punished through forced conversion to Christianity. By a lesser actor, he could be played as a one-dimensional outcast, inevitably shunned from society. Instead, Raine Hoover’s Shylock is fascinatingly humane. Upon her entrance, she stands before the audience with hunched shoulders and paces, overwrought, across the stage. While Shylock is in no way charming, filled with grim desires and delivering harsh utterances, Hoover masterfully toes the line between villain and victim. Shylock’s final scene of his religious conversion is the most problematic. Preceded by jovial scenes of jest, it is nearly impossible to regain the tragedy amidst the comedy. On her knees, she rocks back and forth, traumatized. She searches for solace in the faces of those who have verbally abused her, crying, she clings to religious paraphernalia from a faith that is not her own. Her performance is heartbreaking. Her performance is real.

Raine Hoover is not alone in making interesting character choices and producing intriguing characters. Liliana Lim’s ’17 portrayal of Bassanio, friend to Antonio (Eve La Puma ’20) the Venetian merchant, is equally sincere, yet exceedingly more upbeat. When Bassanio meets his best friend Gratiano (Francesca Watkins ’20) they exchange an enthusiastic secret handshake, in which both of them fall on the floor. While slightly over the top, their exchange is enthralling due to crossdressing and subverted gender norms. The ponytails of the two actresses are visible, yet they play the role of ‘men,’ free of having to be prim and proper ladies of the 17th century.

Similarly, Portia, played by Alexi Stein ’19, kept the comedic undertone of the play alight with her hysterically flippant attitude and perpetual lounging around on victorian furniture. In one hilarious scene she gets so incensed about her lovelife that she throws herself into a chair, which immediately becomes a barcalounger. In another, Portia watches TV in her pajamas while audio from a Bachelor episode plays in the background. These scenes are funny and when considered discretely, the creative risks taken by director Ezra Jackson-Smith, seem to be a success. However, this type of bold modernization occurs almost exclusively in scenes featuring Portia and her maid, Nerissa (Nefeli Ioannou ’19), making for a thematically inconsistent play.

“The Merchant of Venice” also made an interesting use of the performance space in the Elliott Program Center, creating two distinct camps between Portia’s luxurious home and Shylock’s dwelling. The use of a 6-foot high, chain link fence surrounding Shylock’s property is obstructive and seemingly unnecessary, yet it does convey the war-like feuds grounded in prejudice and business transactions. The third, more transient location of the play was that of being abroad or literally ‘in transit,’ in which much of Antonio and Bassanio’s interactions take place. Albeit a clever use of the stage space, the transitions between the three locations is often erratic. Due to inconsistent pace and actors’ erratic timing, a scene’s pace or tone often seems bizarre when compared to that of the one preceding it. Though these are fixable, minor problems in isolation, inconsistency still takes its toll.

Despite various hiccups in “The Merchant of Venice,” the strength of the Stanford Women* in Theater group should be noted. Founded just nine months ago, WiT shows immense potential in terms of its ability to produce high quality theater. Despite incongruencies, Jackson-Smith and company take huge, noteworthy risks. Actors delivered heartbreaking performances, and women were able to produce deeply creative work outside of the confines of gender. Stanford Women* in Theater is the newest group to watch.

An earlier version of this article misidentified the author.

Contact Olivia Witting at owitting ‘at’

This article has been updated to reflect students’ current identities.

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