Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice Have Their Problems, but Jack Young is Magnificent as Shylock

Well the University of Houston's Shakespeare Festival is slogging through another broiling Houston August on the stage of Miller Outdoor Theatre. I wish I could report that the oppressive heat went unnoticed because Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice, played in rotating rep for this season's free offerings, held one enrapt and inured to the humid, stifling air, the errant helicopter buzzing low, the screaming child two rows down, or the wafting smell of re-fried nachos. But, no, sorry to say, the festival lets Shakespeare down. Hard.

Full of prophecies, black magic, and buckets of blood, Macbeth has plenty of life. It seethes with it. Adroitly condensed, the play gallops across the stage with a breathless tale of ambitious Macbeth (Adam Noble) and his just-as-ambitious wife, Lady Macbeth (Tracie Thomason), whose gruesome rampage toward the throne of Scotland leaves an epic wake of slaughter. But the price of evil is what the conscious-stricken Thane describes so juicily as "full of scorpions is my mind." Once husband and wife start their wicked journey, the blood lust is insatiable and inevitably leads to madness and destruction.

Plot wise, everything's in order, if quickly done. Ambitious Macbeth, a valiant soldier, is taunted by the Weird Sisters who foretell his future as King of Scotland. Goaded by his venal wife, he runs rampant through the kingdom, murdering anyone who stands in his way to the throne. Once king, he cannot stop. Though besieged by his conscience, he must plow ahead. Pesky heirs – and their wives and innocent children – must be dispatched, too. Yet glory and power hold no allure, and his dark and bloody deeds ultimately do him in. Resigned like some contemporary existential hero, he goes down fighting, forfeiting his head. “I gin to be aweary of the sun,” he confesses on his way to the final battle, as Birnam wood marches toward his castle at Dunsinane, “and wish the estate 'o the world were now undone.”

Shakespeare overlays this blood-red, fast-galloping drama with darkness and Stygian gloom. Even when it's supposed to be daytime, clouds and mist cover the sun, owls screech, and chimneys tumble in windstorms. Violent nature becomes Macbeth's mind. Ripe with some of Shakespeare's most radiantly alive poetry, Macbeth romps ever forward. Nothing stops its momentum. (Written as a panegyric for newly crowned James I, fresh from Scotland, who appropriated Shakespeare's theater company under his royal wing as The King's Company, Macbeth is chock-full of witchcraft, portents of doom, black-hearted deeds, relentless violence, a swirling undercurrent of sex and impotence, and a final blast of Scottish pride as the kingdom is made whole. Known to fall asleep during performances, James would have been wide-eyed during this play. Shakespeare knew his audience well.)

Macbeth was Shakespeare's most admired play during his lifetime, and a smash hit with Scotsman James. Full-blooded, to say the least, it's a damned good show, but HSF stumbles through it. This is a very routine Macbeth without any surprises. There's a cardboard-looking castle, a nod toward the medieval in costuming with some fashionable tartan appliques in the doublets and skirts, and plenty of broadswords. It's no more than required for an adequate Macbeth, mostly less so. There's no momentum here. Players stomp off the stage and, after a slight pause, more enter from the opposite side. It all moves in fits and starts, far from the straight-arrow approach of Shakespeare. The wayward miking, always a problem in this al fresco venue, makes each entrance a trap as any opening words are muffed by inattentive sound engineers or by a heavy hand on the volume control, making the witches, who are already screeching, overmodulate and distort. Shakespeare's beguiling and so eerie Scene 1 is off to a rocky start. These weird prophetic sisters (Elissa Levitt, Kat Cordes, Suzelle Palacios) sport mummified heads with long grizzled hair atop their own heads, which they flaunt as if in a Clairol commercial, but they get our attention. Macbeth's too, and his speedy descent into murder begins forthwith, abetted by his rapacious wife who has plans of her own if her husband waffles.

Thomason has a rich velvet voice ripe for this murderous lady, but she shouts and over emotes. “Unsex me now” is her famous appeal to the forces of darkness, but Thomason doesn't build to it, she just yells it out. She's better in the banquet scene, alternating with alarm at her husband's mad outburst while soothing the perturbed guests, but it's so clumsily staged, stiff and unmoving, that we lose focus. Her mad scene, “Out, out, damned spot,” whispered and yelled in equal measure, is saved by Adham James Haddara, who plays one of the smallest roles in any Shakespeare play, the Doctor who overhears her private rant. Haddara does more with his minor role than all the other actors combined. He finds more character in his scant lines, more motivation, more empathy. He has a fathoms-deep bass that resounds in the outdoor space, miked or not. Why wasn't he cast in a more substantial role?

Noble falls into Macbeth as the play proceeds. Although we never quite believe his despair or mental anguish as his fate drumbeats on, when Birnam wood marches up to his castle door and he can't decide if he should put on his armor or take it off, we finally feel he's getting the punishment he deserves. Noble never catches the fire inside this malicious, ambitious Scot. There are no scorpions in his head. He smolders impressively, but never combusts, and there's not an ounce of attraction between him and his equally malicious wife. They're one of theater's most malevolent tag teams, but Noble and Thomason might as well be brother and sister for their arch coolness. One little kiss upon Macbeth's arrival home, but no hint of anything carnal. Soon, Lady Macbeth has her hands around his throat. Why use sex, I suppose, when you can beat your husband into committing regicide.

Perhaps we should cut some slack for director Jack Young who directs Macbeth as if by rote, since he stars magnificently as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, one of Shakespeare's most unsettling plays which boasts one of his most magnificent creations. I think Young's energies were elsewhere.

Shakespeare scholars have always drawn an apologetic veil over Merchant, none too willing to sully the Bard's reputation with charges of anti-Semitism. But how can anyone avoid it? Face it, Shakespeare was a man of his times, apparently as prejudiced as anyone else in Elizabethan England. His genius lay, naturally, in making Jewish usurer Shylock an object of understanding, if not sympathy. Oh, Shylock's out for revenge – with a vengeance – for all the slights, slurs, spittings, and kicks he's gotten from the good citizens of Venice, so much so that he fiercely refuses to relent on Antonio's contract for a loan of three thousand ducats. If merchant Antonio (Mirron Willis, solid and stalwart) doesn't repay by the specified date, then he forfeits a pound of flesh. Shylock, intoning heaven, brings a scale and whets his knife on his shoe during the trial scene. Antonio's punishment, hideous as it is, will partially atone for all the disgrace and humiliation he's had to suffer throughout his life.

No one in this play, not even saintly Portia (Amelia Fischer), who cross-dresses and pretends to be a lawyer for Antonio, is above prejudice. Shylock is baited throughout by everyone, cursed, spat upon, and attacked for being a Jew. It's shocking to see, shocking to hear. (No playwright is more current than Shakespeare.) Shylock loses the case, his daughter, his fortune, and his house, but the last condition is the final coup: he's forced to convert. When that was announced, some in the audience gasped. Merchant still has the power to stun.

Believe it or not, this is a comedy, or as much of one as Shakespeare allows. These good people mock Jews, but in the next breath spout exquisite love poetry. They're vile yet witty; decent yet indecent; noble yet avaricious. At the end, Shylock is bereft and alone, duly punished, but all the lovers pair off. Considering they're all unlikable in some way: bigots, greedy, stupid, it's surprising how light-hearted the play can be.

Perhaps, though, not as light-headed as this production, directed by Tiger Reel, which turns Portia into a glam TV reality star a la Paris Hilton (her “casket” scenes are played as a dim, stretched-out game show called “The Lottery.” Later she'll emcee her own talk show, “Portia!”); while Venice's Rialto is portrayed as cacophonous stock market. This production tries to be relevant, but the contempo references don't do it any favors. Money drives everyone in Merchant, so perhaps the mocking of glitz and bling isn't too far afield, but this pop culture approach seems too easy. When Portia appears as wise counsel for the defense, we wonder where she got her smarts. We're gobsmacked, as if Kim Kardashian suddenly became a nun.

Young, though, is the reason to see this show. His Shylock doesn't pull punches, nor ask for sympathy. He's been wronged, terribly wronged, and must lash out the only way he can. His sense of outrage overtakes him in a demonic fury; he doesn't know what angers him more, the loss of his jewels or the fact that his daughter Jessica (Suzelle Palacios) has purloined them to marry Christian Lorenzo (Mateo Mpinduzi-Mott). Merchant's most famous passage belongs to Shylock, his universal entreaty to fellow Venetians: “Hath not a Jew eyes? ... If you prick us do we not bleed, if you tickle us do we not laugh...” The audience sat spellbound, just as they must have done at the Globe.

If, heaven forfend, you've never seen a live Shakespeare production, by all means go and treat yourself. Macbeth gallops through its blood feuds, easy to follow and comprehend; while Merchant, disquieting and uncomfortable, will make you think about how you live your life. That's Shakespeare in a nutshell. Sweating for two hours, drinking in the world's most profound playwright, is small price for changing your life.

Macbeth. August 4, 6, 8.
The Merchant of Venice. August 5,7, 9.
All performances start at 8:30 p.m. Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park. For information, call 281-373-3386. Free.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover