“…Consider this—” Portia proclaims during the climactic trial scene in The Merchant of Venice, “that in the course of justice none of us should see salvation.” The line serves as a fitting reminder in the midst of a play that raises its fair share of questions about justice, fairness, and mercy.
Never in question, however, was the quality of Quill Theatre’s production of the problematic Shakespeare classic. In an enactment made all the more powerful and relevant in light of recent events, Dr. Jan Powell’s cast turned in a wonderful performance, shining throughout the play in comedic and tragic moments alike.
The actors hold very little back, from the explicit anti-Semitism voiced by many of the central characters to the emotionally-charged drama of the courtroom scene to a few hilarious attempts by Portia’s suitors to win her hand. There was certainly no shortage of moments when it was both hard to watch and impossible to look away.
The driving force in many of those dramatic moments was Matthew Radford Davies’s Shylock. Davies was phenomenal as the Jewish moneylender who absorbs plenty of hate and abuse over the course of the show. His delivery of the well-known “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech was beautifully powerful, as was the rest of his riveting, thoughtful enactment, which truly stood out among a slew of other capable performances.
On the other side of the central conflict stood Antonio and Bassanio. Iman Shabazz and Joseph Bromfield turned in steady, solid performances in their respective roles, together playing both sides of the power balance believably as the plot twists and turns. Brandon Bruce played third man Gratiano, a rascally comrade who accompanies Bassanio and seems to always go one step further than his friend (often, and sometimes comically, one step too far).
Lorenzo, another companion of those three played by Axle Burtness, proved a softer, more readily likeable character, perhaps due in part to his scenes with Jessica (Rebecca Turner), his wife-to-be and also Shylock’s daughter. The two prove a happy, lovable, natural duo who provide a lighter counterpoint to some of the more intense scenes in the play.
In a similar vein, much of the comic relief in the play comes in the form of various suitors to Portia. Addie Barnhart plays the coy noblewomen well, and her bantering conversation with Chelsea Burke’s Nerissa was a sign of funny things to come, soon followed by the appearance of Morocco (Miguel Girona) and Arragon (Luke Schares), who came to have a go at courting and marrying Portia. The two were nothing short of hilarious in their one-on-one interactions with Portia, getting laugh after laugh after laugh. Both Girona and Schares also appeared in other smaller roles in the play, and both men, while outstanding in the wooing scenes, were rock solid throughout.
It’s hard to classify the play as either a comedy or a tragedy, but Quill’s production of The Merchant of Venice excels on both ends of the spectrum while not shying away from the prejudice and bigotry that is so central to the story and the characters. It’s the kind of show that will make you think and self-reflect even after you leave Agecroft’s outdoor courtyard.
Merchant runs through July 31 as part of the Richmond Shakespeare Festival at Agecroft Hall. For tickets and showtimes, visit Quill Theatre.