Sunday, May 20, 2018

Theodore Wores, 1859-1939

A delightful remnant of the past has been rescued from oblivion by the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara, with the help of the Farrington Historical Foundation, and is presently being featured in a special exhibit at the museum, called "Theodore Wores: Under the California Sun."

Twenty-three lovely Impressionist landscapes by pioneering California painter Thomas Wores, including scenes from the Santa Clara Valley, the San Francisco coast, and the dramatic valley of Yosemite, were discovered in storage at the museum by its Deputy Director, Preston Metcalf.

These paintings date from 1912, when San Francisco was still surrounded by sand dunes covered in blue lupine, from the 1920s when Saratoga was synonymous with orchards, from the 1930s when Yosemite was still a rare sight. Metcalf, who grew up in Santa Clara in the 1960s when some of these scenes still looked much the same, recognized the historic and nostalgic significance of these works now that so much has been paved over and polluted, so he determined to secure funding to have them restored and exhibited. From the Triton, the show will move to other venues around the state.

1910-1920

The Sand Dunes of San Francisco, Ca, 1912

Blue Lupines of the Sand Dunes of San Francisco, c. 1912

Entrance to Golden Gate, c. 1914
1920s

Tree Blossoms, 1920

Peach Orchard, Saratoga, California, c. 1925

Road with a Blossoming Orchard, 1925

A Garden in Saratoga, California, 1927

My Studio Garden in Saratoga, Ca, 1926

My Summer House, Saratoga, Ca, 1928

1930s

Yosemite Valley, California, 1931

Yosemite Valley, California, 1931

From the point of view of art history, Theodore Wores is significant because he was one of the earliest California-born artists to achieve international fame in his own time. Wores was born in San Francisco—to parents who had fled the war between Austria and Hungary—and at the age of 16, he became one of the first students at the San Francisco School of Design, the first art academy on the West Coast.  The following year he moved to Munich, where he studied for six years. After several years of building his career in different locations, Wores settled in San Francisco. Now a well-established painter, he became a Dean at the San Francisco Institute of Art, which was the current name of the academy where he first studied art.

The Iris Flowers of Hori Kiri, Tokio, c. 1893
Crocker Museum / Jan's photo, 2010
Wores' best work depicted "exotic" scenes—in Chinatown, Japan, Hawaii, Samoa—in a style that was heavily influenced by his academic training. 

The landscapes in this exhibit, done in a softer, brushier style, are minor works, but they have a special appeal for folks in the Bay Area, and the longer you look at them the more you appreciate their high quality.

In 1924, when Wores was in his mid-sixties, he acquired a second home and studio in Saratoga, and painted many Impressionist depictions of the orchards surrounding it. The paintings in this show were donated by his widow, Carolyn Bauer Wores.



Monday, May 14, 2018

In Cold Blood


The big question in the non-fiction novel In Cold Blood by Truman Capote is why murder a family of four people, why invade their home in the middle of the night, tie the up, gag them, and shoot them in the face with a shotgun? The answer is fairly simple, actually; the murderers were psychopaths, meaning they had no conscience and no attachment to life, to other humans, or even to their own life. But it doesn't seem obvious to the neighbors of the victims, to the investigators, or even to the reader. It seems senseless and horrific, and you have to wonder how anyone's personality could become so warped that they would commit mass murder.

Capote developed several innovations in order to consider this problem. In the first place, there's is no suspense in the usual sense: Capote used a famous murder case in which the perpetrators had already been convicted and hanged by the time the book was published. But for the detectives there is plenty of suspense; they have a real "who done it" with very few clues. Capote develops the characters of a few of the detectives, and follows them in their investigations, so that the reader feels their suspense. There is also plenty of suspense for the people who knew the murder victims—the prosperous Clutter family—as they all begin to suspect each other, and to be fearful about the future. The characters of a few of these people are sketched in as well, so the reader absorbs their suspense.

The innovation that set the literary world abuzz was that the novel occupies a new space in between factual reporting and fiction. Capote conscientiously reports every scrap of evidence, even false leads, what would be 'blue herrings' in a British mystery show. He reports every interview. He quotes from the detectives' notes. It's a wonder that he can keep the reader interested in all this minutia. But he escapes the bounds of journalism by using the facts to conjure scenes, complete with atmospheric details and dialog that the author could not have heard. Of course, some people object with his taking this much license, but that's what makes it a novel; otherwise, it would just be journalism, and nothing new in terms of form. Also, it would not have become a major hit in the publishing world. People were already familiar with the basic facts of the case; it is the imagined part that holds your attention.

A third quality of the novel is harder to describe. Usually the narrator of a novel has a consistent voice, a sort of attitude, a point of view. In Cold Blood is presented in the form of reports from the participants, so the point of view is constantly shifting. Part of the story—part of the evidence—is told from one character's point of view, part from another, following several characters. The reader hardly notices any general narration pulling all these "factual" reports together.

Instead of a voice, the novel has style, a truly exemplary style of using the English language. Capote's sentences are remarkably clear and graceful—just the right choice of words, the perfect word order, no clutter or self-consciousness. Each sentence calmly, sensibly, sympathetically leads to the next.

The reader experiences the magnitude of the crime—we meet the victims and hear their dying words as they are slaughtered methodically. We experience the gnawing hunger for answers that motivates the lead detectives in the case. But most importantly, we get an intimate look at the childhood and development of psychopaths, not just the two murderers in this case, but of other mass murderers as well, plus the text-book description of this pathology. And the result is the reader feels some empathy with them; you can see how a neglected and abused little kid could become angry at the world; you can feel how much they needed a little love and guidance when they were vulnerable. People aren't born psychopaths; it's a result of the way they are treated in those early years; maltreatment warps their personalities. Which is not to say you sympathize with them. No, hanging seems the right punishment in the situation. They seem irredeemable. They don't even care. They place no value on their own lives, never did.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Wayne Thiebaud, from 1958 to 1968


Born in 1920, Wayne Thiebaud, now 98, is the grand old man of California painting. Since the 1960s, he has consistently produced cutting-edge paintings that everyone could understand and appreciate, not an easy combination to achieve.

Because Thiebaud spent several years working as a designer and a cartoonist right after high school, and he served a hitch in the Army Air Force during World War II as well, he didn't get started on his career in the fine arts until the 1950's. At the age of 30 he enrolled in Sacramento State College (now California State University, Sacramento), and by the age of 40, in 1960, he was an assistant professor at the University of California in Davis. Thiebaud remained at Davis until 1991, 31 years. This career stability gave him the freedom to pursue the art values that interested him. Thiebaud's career went through a half-dozen phases, taking up one subject after another, and adapting his technique to make his ordinary subject matter look exceptional.

Thiebaud first attracted wide-scale attention between 1958 and 1968 when his simple renderings of common food items available in diners and bakeries, cafeterias and delis fit right in with Pop art and the fad for elevating commerce in art. A special exhibit of Thiebaud's work during this period was presented as its inaugural show by the new museum at UC Davis, the Manetti-Shrem Museum.

Beach Boys, 1959
Special exhibit, Manetti-Shrem Museum / Jan's photo, 2018
Before Thiebaud developed his signature style, he experimented with one of the styles that was popular in the Bay Area, figurative painting with heavy impasto, or thick application of paint with expressionistic brushstrokes. 


Pancakes, 1961
Special exhibit, Manetti-Shrem Museum / Jan's photo, 2018
His rediscovery of the still life was a major breakthrough. The tradition of painting food and tableware dates back to the Dutch Golden Age of the 1600s, but in the 1960s still life was considered too tame. Thiebaud reinterpreted the still life for his era, while also turning from the sumptuous repast of tradition to the lowliest, and loneliest, meal in a diner. As a work of art, this composition is interesting for the way the artist conveyed three-dimensions on a flat structure; also, the brushstrokes are flatter and more controlled, and distinct outlines define the objects.


Delicatessen Counter - Bologna and Cheese, 1961
Special exhibit, Manetti-Shrem Museum / Jan's photo, 2018
As a subject, a deli counter is even more detached than a meal for one, removing any emotional connotations. The emphasis is on the geometry and the colors; the image is close to abstract, barely tied to reality. The brushstroke has been carefully controlled in order to define shapes as well as to suggest the texture of the deli items.


Delicatessen Counter, 1961
Special exhibit, Manetti-Shrem Museum / Jan's photo, 2018
This painting shows amazing control of the brushstroke to define shapes and especially to mimic the textures of the food items. The artist was very interested in the way paint compares to the textures of the subjects he is depicting. The composition is based on a strong and stable geometry. 


Drink Syrups, 1961
Special exhibit, Manetti-Shrem Museum / Jan's photo, 2018
At the level of subject matter, Thiebaud documented certain objects and customs that no long appear in the same form; this row of drink syrups must have been intended for snow cones, but I believe they usually come in bottles nowadays. The dispensers have been simplified to their basic geometry, removing all associations and connotations, making them merely containers for the primary colors, with blue added in the triangular base, making this sort of an art joke. Thiebaud enlivened his dull subject with colorful and vibrant outlines.


Sucker Tree, 1961
Special exhibit, Manetti-Shrem Museum / Jan's photo, 2018
Have you ever seen a cone, perhaps styrofoam, with branches formed by lollipops? It looks like a relic of the past. The subject gave the artist the chance to play around with angles of placement for circular shapes on a flat plane as well as with types of patterns within a circle, requiring very precise brushstrokes.


Refrigerator Pies, 1962
Special exhibit, Manetti-Shrem Museum / Jan's photo, 2018
Thiebaud is most associated with paintings of cakes and pies, not the homemade type, but products available in bakeries. His goal here is to make the paint mimic the textures of the food; the chocolate cream pie looks luscious. He simplified the shapes to their basic geometries and arranged them uniformly, cropping out any context of the bakery.


Cream Soups, 1963
Special exhibit, Manetti-Shrem Museum / Jan's photo, 2018
Again the artist strides the border between realism and geometric abstractionism. Oil paint has been mixed to the creaminess of soup, but the shapes have been simplified to basic circles, and modified in size and shape to indicate depth. Vibrant outlines in arbitrary colors make the shapes lift off the canvas.


Football Player, 1963
Special exhibit, Manetti-Shrem Museum / Jan's photo, 2018
In his next phase, Thiebaud turned to the figure, however, as with his still lifes, he treats the figure more as an object than as a person, simplifying the component shapes, eliminating personal detail, and reducing the figure to a bold icon; he barely gave the figure a place to sit, though he placed it in a seated position. The helmet and mask are perfect because the artist is not interested in the football player as an individual, or even as an athlete; he is interested in the figure as object, and about playing with modeling and dimensionality.


Man Sitting - Back View, 1964
Special exhibit, Manetti-Shrem Museum / Jan's photo, 2018
It is quite surprising to see the rear view of a lone figure in a painting. Is it a statement about alienation and isolation? Is this the poor guy about to slurp up cream soup? Or is it an exercise in treating a figure as an object, creating convincing roundness and depth of shape without any supporting context, just perfect horizontal brushstrokes. The figure doesn't even get colorful contours except in the difficult area where the bottom meets the seat.



Standing Man, 1964
Special exhibit, Manetti-Shrem Museum / Jan's photo, 2018
This figure is all suit and no personality. Brushstrokes are virtually invisible and details have been eliminated. The question is how does light fall on a standing subject? The objective is to convey modeling through light and shadow; to make the figure look like it is really there, though there is no definition of any particular space, except for a single horizontal line to represent the floor.


Woman in Tub, 1965
Special exhibit, Manetti-Shrem Museum / Jan's photo, 2018
Isolation, alienation, and sterility are conveyed in this image; there's no denying its emotional content. The tub is indicated by a few colorful horizontal lines on a ground of flat whites and grays. The head is photographically real but dehumanized by its position. If there is a person in that tub, she is lost in revery, her personality withdrawn and at rest.


Five Seated Figures, 1965
Special exhibit, Manetti-Shrem Museum / Jan's photo, 2018
Like still life, the group portrait dates back to the Dutch Golden Age, but Thiebaud reinterpreted the subject to leave out the "groupiness" of the group. By their positions ignoring each other, you see these people are not in the same room at the same time. The artist probably painted a separate portrait of each person, then combined them arbitrarily into a design. He treated the figures not as people but as objects. Perhaps the artist is saying "This is the way the world is; no one pays attention to anyone else; each is a self-absorbed unit." Or it could be a study of how the light falls on faces looking 5 different directions, how light and shadow models legs and shoulders, how to create enough space for 5 chairs and get all the legs to overlap convincingly.


Girl with Mirror, 1965
Special exhibit, Manetti-Shrem Museum / Jan's photo, 2018
Here is a girl with great breasts and a solemn expression. If the face were smiling or looking up, the image would be erotic, but the girl herself is absent from this figure. This beautiful torso is treated as an object, like one of Monet's haystacks, for studying light on organic shapes and the amazing range of shades and tints included in "skin tone." Brushwork is very refined and smooth.


Wayne Thiebaud is a traditional realist with a contemporary twist. He hides systematic variation of abstract aesthetic values in the form of ordinary objects and detached figures. During the first decade of his career, covered by the special exhibit at the Manetti-Shrem, his work grew increasingly complex and subtle, while he examined the traditions of still life and figure painting. This was only the beginning of a long and beautiful career.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Breakfast of Champions


I didn't like Kurt Vonnegut's novel Breakfast of Champions. I should have liked it—Vonnegut is an extremely important 20th century writer. I expected to like it—I liked several of his other novels. I tried to like it—and there are brilliant passages in it. But it the end, I was just glad it was over with.

At the largest level, the problem is that Vonnegut interweaves fantasy with reality, and fantasy with fantasy. One of the characters is supposed to be the author, and he interacts with the characters he has created; he gets badly mauled by a dog of his own creation. He creates and uncreates characters, moves them to different times and places, and offers commentaries on his reasons.

At the stylistic level, Vonnegut's prose is choppy, partly because he keeps darting around in overlapping universes. The other reason is that he throws in so much minutiae of verisimilitude that there is a long distance between subject and action.

Thematically, the problem is nihilism. The author and his surrogates are at pains to point out and illustrate the banality and inanity of modern life, presumably for comical effect. This is a dystopian novel, no holds barred.

None of the characters is developed in a sympathetic way; they are basically place-holders in a game of 3-D chess.

Existentially, Vonnegut wanted to show the interconnectedness of everyone's stories, the absurdity and tragedy in everyone's lives, and the futility of the whole flawed human enterprise.

You have to be the right age to appreciate this type of bitter humor and this casual way of mixing fantasies like cards in a deck.

So, if I disliked it for all these reasons, why did I keep reading it? Because some of Vonnegut's ravings express his insights in a unique and impactful manner.

Here's a paragraph that aptly describes his intentions:
"I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done (my italics). If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead. It is hard to adapt to chaos, but it can be done. I am living proof of that: It can be done."

Here's a funny line that is still apt:
"Much of the conversation in the country consisted of lines from television shows, both past and present."

Here's a good description of women's defense mechanisms:
"The women all had big minds because they were big animals, but they didn't use them for this reason: unusual ideas could make enemies and the women, if they were going to achieve any sort of comfort and safety, needed all the friends they could get. So, in the interest of survival they trained themselves to be agreeing machines. All their minds had to do was to discover what other people were thinking and then they thought it too."

For a major fan of Art History, the most interesting part was a commentary on the Minimalist paintings by Barnett Newman, who puzzled art-lovers with canvases bearing only one or two stripes on a uniform background. Here's an example of Newman's simplest composition, grandly called Onement:

Onement, 1953 by Barnett Newman
Internet 
To carry his interpretation, Vonnegut creates a character called Karabekian who has painted a work called The Temptation of Saint Anthony. He then places the painter in a bar scene where the patrons scorn his work, saying a child could do better. This quote is his response:

The painting did not exist until I made it…Now that it does exist, nothing would make me happier than to have it reproduced again and again, and vastly improved upon, by all the five-year-olds in town. I would love for your children to find pleasantly and playfully what it took me many angry years to find…
It is a picture of the awareness of every animal. It is the immaterial core of every animal–the ‘I am’ to which all messages are sent. It is all that is alive in any of us–in a mouse, in a deer, in a cocktail waitress. It is unwavering and pure, no matter what preposterous adventure may befall us."

Just because I didn't like the novel doesn't mean I didn't appreciate it. But I'm eager to get onto something richer and more satisfying.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Cendrillon

To hear and watch an opera with four stellar women's voices is absolutely stunning. The opera Cendrillon was shown Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera Company at local movie theaters, April 28, and the recording will be shown in the Met Encore the following Wednesday night.


The lead role of Cendrillon—Cinderella in French—was sung by Joyce Didonato, a Kansas-born medium-range (mezzo) soprano who has made this a signature role for several years. Her voice is captivating from the first note; it's as though all the minor characters who set the scene for the story were just singing, while Ms. Didonato was making a sublime sound that she had invented herself. 


At the same time, her wicked step-mother was sung by another mezzo, Stephanie Blythe, who has a true power-house voice; she is known for playing a goddess in one of Wagner's grand operas. 



As if to make men irrelevant, the lead male role, Prince Charming, was also sung by a mezzo, Alice Coote, who has made a sort of specialty of singing men's roles. Which immediately invites the question, why write a man's role for a woman's voice? Two sopranos with perfectly matched voices singing romantic duets is a gorgeous sound, quite sublime. In fact, Massenet's ultimate goal with this opera was to create a context for this thrilling soprano sound.



It's very unusual to have three sopranos in the same range singing lead roles in an opera. To add highlights to the sound, the Fairy Godmother was sung with great flare in the highest range, by Kathleen Kim, a Korean-American who is a coloratura soprano. Although she was singing groups of very high notes, she never screeched; she entered each high note gently and and moved on with control.

In the lower range, there was only one significant male role, that of Cinderella's father; it was handled competently by Laurent Naouri, but he couldn't compete with the women, and didn't try to.

While we're talking about voices, we have to mention the orchestral parts. The orchestra not only supported the vocalists, but had an independent role in long passages right in the middle of the opera that have no words at all. The orchestra "sang" about what is going on in the hearts of Cinderella and Prince Charming; it set up the situation and mood; it marked the passage of time in the young lovers' lives.

Cendrillon  was composed around 1900 by Jules Massenet, a Frenchman, in a style that is very French: romantic, graceful, frivolous, sentimental. For modern ears, it is so pretty that it is almost comical, almost embarrassing. Therefore the production designer, Laurent Pelly, who also designed the costumes, created a comedy context for his poignant romance.


The wicked Step-Mother and vain Step-Sisters were caricatured with silly costumes and stylized behavior. 

The Met chorus and assorted dancers adopted a sort of tiptoe-through-the tulips prance, and mimed various phases of the Prince's Ball and the contest for his affections like fanciful marionettes. Overall, there was so much funny business and so many fanciful costumes, that the opera recalled Beach Blanket Babylon in its effect. Everything fit together so neatly it seemed that the music was written to support the comical dances, rather than the other way around.



Another comical aspect that was added by the production team was that the Fairy Godmother was shown hanging out in a giant library when she was off-duty. And, at the penultimate moment, when she brought the two lovers together in a moment of magical recognition, she was sitting on a tower of massive tomes! Laurent Pelly was paying tribute to the books that hold our dreams and myths.

Opera is about voices first and foremost, but all these great singers were also great actors. Ms Didonato is nearing 50 now, and will likely quit playing young women's roles soon, but she makes you feel the loneliness of a girl whose widowed father has remarried a woman with two daughters her age. Wouldn't the step-sisters feel that she was the interloper? Wouldn't they look down on her and try to keep her down? What a sad situation for her.

To make us feel her sadness more, Mr. Naouri, as her father, reflected her pain very sincerely; anything he lacked as a singer, he made up for in the richness of his portrayal of a man who is basically a wimp, sympathetic but impotent.

Ms. Coote, who plays Prince Charming, was surprisingly good at conveying masculinity in her stance, her walk, and her attitudes. Where Cinderella feels helpless loneliness, Prince Charming conveys petulant ennui.

Ms. Blythe, the step-mother, is alternately comical and impressive, and you really believe her when she recites her family's long and glorious heritage.

Ms. Kim seems to have invented her own version of the Fairy Godmother with a personality that is both feisty and fairy-like, magical. While there is nothing in the lyrics that calls for this, you can hear it in the flighty melodies she sings.

Opera is the most comprehensive art form, with music and drama and dance. When all of it is of the very highest quality, you feel fully entertained. Who could ask for more?

A note on the photos: Usually I crib a photo from the New York Times for my reviews, but this time I managed to whip out my iPhone when I saw the Fairy Godmother sitting on a pile of books, so these shots are my own.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Judy Chicago Interview


The opportunity to hear and see one of the greatest living artists live and in person is a rare event. Judy Chicago was interviewed last night at Bing auditorium at Stanford University, and being there was just as thrilling as I had expected it to be.

Now 78 years old, Judy is fit and vital, giving us hope that she will go on making art for much longer. Her mind is like a vast, well-organized warehouse—like a gallery or a museum—filled with a succession of clearly thought-through ideas. She seems to be able to summon all her ideas, all her growth experiences, all her studies, at will. And her ego is transparent; her self-esteem is high, but she doesn't do any posing or bragging. She just explains everything neutrally. Judy is known for introducing feminism into the values of the art world, but there is no resentment in her manner for the way her work was scorned for several decades.

In fact, she has a generous spirit, in a sort of detached way. All of her work has expressed important ideas that she wanted to share; her purpose has been to empower women to come out about their lives and their concerns. She's not an impassioned warrior, she's a cool and determined educator, using art to educate while maintaining the highest aesthetic standards.

The most important thing I learned from the artist is the importance of the idea to creativity. After she has thought through her idea, she chooses a way to express it, whether it be a series of paintings, or a huge installation combining ceramic, embroidery, and tapestry, and requiring the participation of many crafts workers.

Secondly, I got the idea that confronting and analyzing issues that bother you, helps you break through your barriers and unclog your emotions. Judy doesn't say that explicitly, but you see it in the succession of subjects she has taken up. When she was upset by the neglect of women in the history of art, she studied history in general, and art history especially, and then created a huge installation called The Dinner Party which calls attention to 39 important women usually left out of history. The problem is that a woman could be important and influential in her own era, but historians tended to focus all their attention on the important men of that era, and to denigrate the importance of women's contribution to culture.

When she was angered by the men in the art world, and also at her husband because he was sleeping with his students, she analyzed men's role in society, their thirst for power, and their attitudes, and then produced a series of paintings that expressed all this.

When she felt rejected, she painted a design called Rejection, and added in pencil a poetic description of her psychology.

It seems to me that all this truth-telling empowered her to keep moving, to keep growing, and to liberate her art-making energies fully.

If Judy's work has escaped your attention, you can read a very nice article that I wrote about her: Judy Chicago  It's not easy work to like; some of it is beautiful, some it is shocking, all of it is new and innovative. Anything truly new and different requires open-mindedness, but your reward is the growth you experience.





Monday, April 23, 2018

The Merchant of Venice


The Merchant of Venice is a four-hundred year old play by the most celebrated playwright in the English language, William Shakespeare, about the relationship between Justice and Mercy.

Shakespeare is tough to play and tough to appreciate, mainly because English was a very different language in the 1600s than it is now. The big problem for the actors is to make Shakespeare's words sound natural, to make their roles look like real people, to make the strange sound familiar. No matter how good they are, it's still a big problem for the audience to distinguish the words and understand their meaning. The reason the audience is willing to work so hard is that Shakespeare considered ethical problems that are everlasting in life, and frequently he expressed ideas in a way that just knocks you flat, it is so spot on.

Shakespeare is generally played in a large, round theater, like the one Shakespeare wrote for. Sometimes it is played on a big stage, with big stars, and a lot of hoopla. In both cases, the play is in one place, and the viewer is in another; the experience is rather formal and detached. The special attraction of the production by the City Lights Theater Company in San Jose was that it was in a small venue, with no raised stage or proscenium—the actors and the audience shared the same space. We could see every nuance of expression, gesture, and body language. This intimacy really helped to make the poetry understandable.

The director of this production, Kit Wilder, further clarified the drama by using modern dress and by adding lots of stage business, not necessarily called for by the script. The minor characters were played with lots of kinks and quirks and funny business, as they no doubt were in Shakespeare's company.

So far we have the consideration of a serious theme, lightened by a lot of slapstick. Now weave in a corny, Hollywood-type love story that comes to an improbably happy ending. And throw in a little identity-confusion, deceit and trickery.

The conflict of Justice vs. Mercy is realized through the problem of the Jew, the problem of the outcast, the problem of prejudice. In a way, it was an easy problem for Shakespeare to consider because there weren't any Jews in England; they had been banned in 1290; that's why the play was set in Venice. On the other hand, there was plenty of prejudice against them, mainly because of their practice of money-lending, but also for religious reasons. Shylock, the money-lender in this play, is presented rather sympathetically early in the play. He gets to point out that he has been ill-used and insulted by Christians, even as they used his money. His eloquent speeches might resonate with any group in society that feels themselves to be maltreated. But it is impossible to like him because of his intense desire for revenge on a Christian merchant who has repeatedly insulted and offended him. It's like a crazy and unreasoning obsession. In the end, Shylock gets a severe come-uppance that would have given his prejudiced audience a lot of pleasure.

Shylock tries to use Justice and the letter of the law to exact revenge on the merchant he hates the most, Antonio. He tricks Antonio into offering a "pound of flesh" as security for a loan, because Antonio feels confident that his ship is about to come in—multiple ships, actually, which are at sea in various places fulfilling trading enterprises. When it is reported that all those ships have been lost in storms or other misadventures, the question of the "pound of flesh" becomes all too real.

Like a Hollywood movie, this courtroom drama has an improbable romance in the background. Portia is a well-heeled Venetian woman, with a deferential personal assistant always close at hand, whose dead father has set up a fairy-tale problem for any man who seeks to marry her: the winning suitor must choose from three chests the one that holds a picture of Portia. The chests are made of different materials: gold, silver, and lead; and each one has a cryptic saying on the lid. The idea is that this puzzle would select the most genuine and committed suitor. Shakespeare, and Wilder, the director, have a lot of fun caricaturing the first two suitors as greedy, arrogant, self-serving clowns.

The third suitor, Bassanio, very conveniently, happens to be in love with Portia already, and she with him, and even more conveniently, he figures out the riddle correctly.

It wouldn't be a Shakespeare comedy if there weren't at least one character who masquerades as another. In this case, unspecified shenanigans have enabled Portia to masquerade as a learned Judge, and her assistant to appear as a court clerk. In this way, Portia gets to represent the quality of Mercy, and she gives a moving speech about Mercy that is often quoted. However, when she cannot persuade Shylock to be merciful, and she cannot persuade him to accept monetary compensation instead of taking the merchant's life, she stoops to low legal chicanery herself and exacts a very punitive revenge on Shylock. The audience is left stunned and wondering.

But, again like a Hollywood script-writer, in the conclusion, the playwright soothes your feelings with a healthy dose of comedy and romance. After Portia tricks Shylock, she goes on to trick her new husband with some funny business about an exchange of rings, taking advantage of the fact that he hadn't recognized her in court. And, like a mirror or an echo, Portia's assistant, Nerissa, just happens to be in love with a companion of Bassanio's and plays the same trick on him. Thus, in the end when the two men are undeceived, two happy couples depart arm-in-arm. Very cute. As a counterpoint, there is a third romance: between Shylock's daughter, who becomes a Christian, and another of Bassanio's companions. They run off together and join Bassanio and Portia's party, thereby adding a third happy couple to the final parade.

All the actors were good in this production. Occasionally, one of the actors who played a minor character got their delivery muddied a bit; about 10% of the script was unintelligible to me, but I found that acceptable, because all the British-produced mystery shows on television have references or accents that I don't understand. The actress who played Portia, Maria Giere Marquis, had true command of her role and clear expression. Brian Herndon, who played Shylock, handled his difficult role with professional aplomb. One thing that's good about local theater productions is that the actors look more like real people than big-time actors; it's easier to relate to them.

Another good thing about small theaters is that they are forced to dispense with scenery and sets. Directors are forced to devise minimal staging; actors double as stage-hands to move limited props on  and off stage that indicate the setting in the barest way. This serves to focus attention on the script, on the action, and on the drama.

The approach to costuming for this production was interesting. Though the clothes were vaguely "modern," the clothes had strange styles—coats too long or too short, lapels too wide or too narrow—and vivid, intensely contrasting colors. Portia wore spring-like greens and pastels while her suitor wore wine red suit and tie; his companions wore purple or green and the unsuccessful suitors had gaudy clothes of gold lamé. These highly differentiated costumes helped to identify the characters and to give the story a fantasy quality.

We saw the last performance of this production, and stayed after to mingle on stage with the theater company, and to compliment them all around. All in all, this was an exciting, stimulating afternoon, and Shakespeare was redeemed once again.