Fermat's Last Theater Company knows that something interesting happens when Shakespeare is set in modern day. The themes feel more lively and less frozen in time. A play like The Merchant of Venice lends itself particularly well to adaptation. One of Shakespeare's "comedies," it explores motifs we still grapple with today, four centuries later: revenge, mercy, same-sex friendships, and, most famously, antisemitism. It's a fine choice for this new company's first production (through Aug. 4 at Overture Center).
Scholars have disagreed about whether Merchant is an example of the antisemitic fears of its time or whether it attempts to illuminate the humanity of the Jewish moneylender Shylock. His famous "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech seems to point toward the latter, but the Nazis chose the former interpretation when they broadcast Merchant -- originally subtitled "With the Extreme Cruelty of Shylock the Jew" -- on German airwaves following Kristallnacht and later to justify genocide.
Fermat's sets Merchant in a contemporary office culture. In costume and tone, it feels more like Neil LaBute than Shakespeare, and that's a plus. The words and situations come alive, especially in the hands of Alex Hancock's Antonio, the titular merchant, and director Ely Phan's Bassanio, Antonio's dear friend. The standout is Greer DuBois' Portia, who brings the self-conscious sass of a Disney teen queen to her performance. Every time I saw her gap-toothed smile, I knew we were in for a laugh. I also enjoyed the two beautiful musical interludes by Caryl Farkas. Kudos to this new company for finding a hole in the Madison theatrical marketplace and making Shakespeare a living, breathing thing.
But despite the strong acting and lofty aspirations to "move [us] to laughter, to rage, to critical thought, or to some uncomfortably entertaining combination of all three," this production played too close to the middle. I wanted the company to show where it stands in the debate about antisemitism. I also didn't find much to justify why, in the last moment of the show, Antonio sits alone, looking depressed. His earliest line in the show -- "In sooth, I know not why I am so sad" -- seems to point to his unrequited love for Bassanio. But if we are to feel that Antonio is still sad by play's end, after money and friendship has been restored, we need to know what the cause is.
If you like your Shakespeare lean, modern and without all the trappings of 16th-century dress, this production of Merchant is for you. I wanted for more of a statement about old Shylock. Unlike Shakespeare, modern players have the benefit of knowing how history played out. Still, for a new company, this work is strong.