Having never been to the Back Door Theatre at Mercer University, I wasn’t sure what to expect of the performance. The space was small, but charming. During the welcome just prior to the beginning of the performance, our host mentioned that during the ten-minute intermission, we were free to step into the lobby, which is also Mercer’s beautiful quad. I shared a laugh with the audience about that, and I would share many more during the performance of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.”
Not only was this my first time at this particular theater, but this was also my first time seeing this particular play. The performances were strong all around. No one really stood out above the rest, and I attribute that to a cast which worked really well together. If I had not known they were mostly students, I would not have guessed it. One performance in particular that I will mention is that of alumna Lindesy Moucheti, who played the part of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. While I could tell she was a woman playing a man, I didn’t care, because I was so struck the character she portrayed. I disliked him in his ruthlessness, and I felt sorrow for him in his suffering. Her performance was as responsible for those emotions as the playwright’s words.
Of course, such is the conflict with “The Merchant of Venice.” There are no characters who are fully redeemable, and Shakespeare’s treatment of Shylock’s character can be hard to watch with contemporary eyes. I found myself squirming with an uncomfortableness for just being in the room. As I understand it, for many years performers would portray Shylock as a purely evil character, but in the 400 years since it was first performed, actors have begun to play him more sympathetically. No matter how he is played though, I don’t think I can watch “The Merchant of Venice” and not feel some guilt.
Yes, this play is a comedy. A tragic comedy but a comedy nonetheless. The situational humor and the wit of the play are as hilarious today as they ever were. The contrast of those funny moments with the terrible storyline around Shylock’s vengeful spirit and the oppressions which wrought it is compelling. I left the theater with a sour taste in my mouth. I don’t know what Shakespeare’s intent was with this character, but the fact that it is still painful to watch 400 years later is testament to the tragedy of the human condition.
I felt somewhat reassured by Director Scot Mann’s notes in the playbill: “We’re also choosing to tell Shylock’s story without watering down either his harshness or humanity… this is a deeply troubling story… When will we learn ‘the quality of mercy is not strained?’”
If you’ve seen this play before, you’ll find that these actors’ portrayals will stack up against many. If you’ve never seen “The Merchant of Venice,” the Back Door Theatre is calling to you. My advice: lay down the five dollars for your ticket, and be prepared to leave the theater with a bit of laughter and a bit of sorrow.
Performances of “The Merchant of Venice” continue through October 7.
The Back Door Theatre: Willingham Hall, Mercer University, 1400 Coleman Ave., Macon; 478-301-2974.