The Stanford Theatre Activist Mobilization Project (STAMP)’s rendition of “The Merchant of Venice” was, above all else, infinitely earnest. The setting was an intimate one: a small, dimly lit stage, one whose lighting cast shadows on the faces of its players and whose sound work felt a bit amateurish at times (though to be fair, the show I saw was their first full run-through in the space.) In the first few scenes, the show underwhelmed–it leads in with some of its weakest, least-interesting scenes–but it wasn’t long before I was entirely drawn in, mostly because the cast managed to portray the Bard’s characters as more compelling and genuinely likeable than any I have seen before.
The finest aspect of the show was portrayal of the famously villainous Jewish moneylender, Shylock. Played by Natasha Mmonatau ‘15, Shylock is written as cold, vengeful, greedy and merciless. Mmonatau’s rendition, on the other hand, showed us a woman who had long been oppressed and who had finally reached her breaking point; she was relatable and infinitely human–and maybe I’m just a good capitalist, but I found myself entirely agreeing with much of what she had to say about economics and justice. This was the greatest strength of the show: it took what may be the most controversial of Shakespeare’s works and used it as a way to open up dialogue on the effects of faith and intolerance, making a tragic hero of its traditional villain.
Other characters to keep an eye out for: Portia (Safiya Nygaard ‘14), whose ad-libbed reactions and body language was more believable than anyone else’s on-set, and Bassanio (graduate student Vin Misra), who was less loudly charismatic but whose earnestness could win over the most cynical of viewers.
As always, the otherwise charming show featured a few major weaknesses. Shakespeare’s works have been performed in a thousand different time periods and settings, to various degrees of effectiveness, and in this case, the modernization of the piece felt like nothing more than a gimmick. I got their intention; it was meant to make the characters more real to the audience or to somehow hold a mirror up to society, but they went about it by adding a few cheesy-sounding ringtones and car horns and little else. Likewise, over-acting was occasionally an issue; there was a scene in which Portia deals with an odious suitor, a sensationally over-the-top nerd stereotype, all hissing lisp and hunching shoulders, hiked-up waistbands and very little subtlety. It certainly kept the viewer interested but perhaps could’ve been done more with more nuance.
Even so, these low points were counteracted by some absolutely fabulous high points. A few scenes to look out for: a delightfully girly chat between the lovely Portia and her maid Nerissa (Lauren Janas ‘12), who were absolutely brilliant at bringing relatability to their two characters; the delightful bromance of Bassanio and Gratiano (Jimmy Lee ‘14), whose interactions were frequently hilarious; and above all else, the final confrontation scene between Portia, Nerissa, Bassanio and Gratiano, in which I laughed aloud almost constantly. Oh, and in the middle of the play, Shylock makes the most outrageously shameless pun about pirates and I nearly choked, so keep an eye out.
All in all, though, STAMP’s “Merchant of Venice” is an extremely accessible version of Shakespeare’s work and definitely worthwhile for those who want to watch the Bard without growing bored.
“Merchant of Venice” runs from Jan. 26-28 in the Nitery Theater at 7 p.m.