Merchant of menace

Now that California Shakespeare Theater’s wild production of >”The Merchant of Venice” is over, I wanted to weigh in about the experience of writing a negative review for a company I hold in the highest regard for its willingness to consistently challenge its audiences.

Director Daniel Fish’s production, with its abundant use of live and pre-recorded video, was a bizarre experience. I didn’t happen to like what I considered the over-use of video. It made the play feel less than live, and it interfered with rather than augmented my experience of the performances (which were, I hasten to add, pretty darn good).

“Merchant” is already a tricky play, what with its schizophrenic structure – I’m an anti-Semitic drama! I’m a romantic comedy! I’m a thorny plea for humanity! I’m a rip-off of “All’s Well That Ends Well”! – so the addition of Fish’s bizarre directorial touches (an actor in a black cat suit, the actor playing Shylock delivering a Catskills comedy routine at the top of the second half) only complicated things.

But say this for Fish and his production: this was Shakespeare you wanted to – no, needed to – talk about, even if it was to complain loudly. Like audience members, the critics were split. Some loved it, others not so much.

Here’s what disturbs me about the experience: I heard from a surprising number of readers via phone and e-mail informing me that because of my review, they weren’t buying tickets to the show. Now, I fully understand that as a theater critic, I’m in the opinion-slinging business. In addition to being (I hope) accurately reported records of a production’s existence, my reviews also help readers decide if a certain show is up their particular alley or not.

Notice I used the verb “help.” I hope that all you informed Theater Dogs out there know that reviews are one person’s opinion and that we happen to live in an area where multiple reviews are available via this new-fangled Internet. In conversation with some of my readers, I suggested they read more positive reviews (like those by Pat Craig at the Contra Costa Times and Lisa Drostova at the East Bay Express) and then make a decision about their ticket purchase.

Or better yet – and this is easy for me to say because I get free press tickets – go ahead and buy the tickets. Then you can whine or praise all you want, and (here’s the beauty part) you get to be part of the conversation.

4 thoughts on “Merchant of menace

  1. I’m glad that this forum affords you the opportunity to respond to those who would comment on your impact in the theatre community. As one who produces and directs theatre, I am grateful for the free publicity that a review in a widely-distributed publication provides. I also understand that there is no guarantee how the press (or my patrons for that matter) will respond to the work, but I recognize that the risk is inherent with the art form. Thank you for asking people to check multiple sources. Thank you for encouraging them to see shows that interest or intrigue them, regardless of what they may hear or read. Most of all, thank you for being a champion for Bay Area theatre, and for always writing intelligent and insightful reviews (whether or not I or anyone else agrees with your opinion).
    No, this was not a paid endorsement…but I do want to know about those t-shirts.

  2. Thank you, Michael. Great comment (and not just because it’s complimentary). You should all check out the California Conservatory Theatre in San Leandro, where Michael serves as managing director. The season opens Sept. 14 with “Radio Gals” and continues with “Bermuda Avenue Triangle” in November, “Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” in January, “Private Lives” in March and “Don’t Dress for Dinner” in May. Visit for information.

  3. Thanks for the blog! I love it.
    Jonathan Moscone and Cal Shakes are a huge asset to the Bay Area theatre scene. I’m a big fan. I don’t have a season subscription so I pick and choose productions that peak my interest. “Merchant” is not one of my favorite Shakespeare plays to begin with and after looking at a cross-section of reviews from different publications (your’s my favorite) I made the concious decision to NOT see it. Ticket price is a big issue for me (let alone the trek to Orinda) so I APPRECIATE the ability to look at reviews and make a decision based on a kind of consensus. Theatres can’t always play it safe, risks must be taken…and the beauty of it is…I don’t have to buy a ticket.

  4. Eyew, sounds a touch apologetic. I mean, I’m sorry, but I hope you’re not sorry. People read you because you have an opinion (usually kind of a fun opinion) and they respect it. You can’t always have a good opinion.

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