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.