Site-specific productions are the true double-edged swords of the theatre world.
Normally, they’re staged for precise spaces that, in bringing the plays to life within them, bring to life new and ideally revelatory elements of the original texts. Yet unlike the venue-malleability of most theatrical enterprises in proscenium houses, site-specific productions often lose what makes them special if they’re revived in different locales for subsequent incarnations.
In successful instances of these moves, the creators will adapt their work to make the transition seamless. Such was the case for Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth from a few years back, which was initially produced amongst the ruins of an old church in Manchester, England – one that echoed the Scottish-castle setting of the play, in addition to emphasizing its spiritual themes – that set designer Christopher Oram ingeniously recreated inside the Park Avenue Armory for the New York transfer. Yet since most theatrical endeavors are not blessed with such means (nor with such means-generators as “Branagh-doing-Shakespeare,” nor with the distinct flexibility of the Armory, perhaps the most dynamic space in the Big Apple), site-specific productions rarely travel to other venues.
Though some may bemoan this finite transience at the heart of so much of theatre, perhaps it’s for the better…at least that’s how I felt watching Karin Coonrad and Compagnia de’ Colombari’s version of the Bard’s The Merchant of Venice, currently playing at the Alexander Kasser Theater on the grounds of Montclair State University. It was first performed in Venice around the city’s Jewish Ghetto, and how this site’s tragic yet persevering history colored the controversial play – which violently casts the title Jew as an outsider – is impossible to surmise without having personally experienced it firsthand, especially because the production makes no substantive attempts to retain elements of its premiere engagement.
The Kasser is a personality-free auditorium, a generic college theatre. It’s a perfectly-fine space, but Coonrad could’ve steered her ship closer to its harbor of departure by staging her rendition outside across the campus. Inside, there’s a ragtag orchestra playing piazza-type music that evokes some European-style communal vivacity, and Launcelot Gobbo – Shakespeare’s typical clownish fool character here – speaks with an Italian accent, thereby suggesting how other attributes besides religious beliefs can mark people as outsiders, though theirs come with far less damning consequences than await Shylock (scholars have admittedly debated for centuries if it’s his Judaism or his cutthroat business practices that inspire such hatred…or is his mercilessness a result of his faith-based ostracization? Needless to say, this topic deserves more than a parenthetical, but alas, that’s not the focus of piece, so let’s leave it there). Besides these few nods to this revival’s origins, the site-specifics were largely left behind in Italy.
Coonrad makes superficial attempts to translate the production to its new home. In her program note, she touches upon how the play comments on the current state of the United States of America, specifically the implications and ramifications that Trump’s election can have on falsely-feared minorities like Shylock. Instead of the set design harkening back to Venetian streets, the only piece of architecture on stage is an unpainted back wall that imposingly looms over the proceedings. Its visibly Brechtian workmanship highlights how the play can speak to a world where Trump wants to build a similar wall to keep out modern-day Shylocks.
The casting constitutes the production’s most direct commentary on the timeless lessons to be gleaned from the play’s focus on societal subjugation; different members of the company don Shylock’s shawl in various scenes. And that’s not just pithy phrasing: A bright yellow sash – perhaps a reference to the Star of David patches that “chosen people” had to wear on their clothing in troubled times – denotes the actor currently playing the Jew Merchant, and it switches hands in acts of ceremonial pageantry. The easy fluidity of these identity changes on stage underscores the arbitrary meaninglessness of all discrimination, as does the decision to double-cast the Shylocks as the omnipotent judges at the end. Transfer of power is as easy yet as monumental as a mere wardrobe switch, a reminder that intolerance goes around and comes back around again; it’s as transient as theatre itself, not grounded in long-lasting reality.
This duality of character bears clear thematic resonance, but it unfortunately detracts from the power of the play when put into functional practice. Though Shylock’s arc is usually the most compelling through-line, its impact mostly fades in the hands of multiple performers, since none of them can deliver the full scope of his fall from grace; Shylock the character almost gets lost in the procession of actors entrusted to tell his story. But based on the average performances of the ensemble – no one elevates the language, resulting in the unengaged audience getting lost in the haze of Shakespeare’s outdated dialect – perhaps the group approach to Shylock could’ve worked in different hands.
Since not much separates this Merchant of Venice from the countless others staged every day around the world, it proves to be an indistinct production in an indistinct theatre on an indistinct college campus, none of which are worth leaving New York City to see.