A classic comedy is brought back to life by Faction of Fools, a commedia dell’arte theater company that resides at Gallaudet University. The Merchant of Venice is a play written by William Shakespeare that follows Antonio, a wealthy, anti-Semitic merchant from Venice (hence the title) as he gets swept up into Bassanio’s courtship and a Jewish loan shark. Antonio is unable to pay back the loan and is ordered to pay back the loan shark, Shylock, with a pound of his flesh. His fate seems dire until Portia, Bassanio’s new wife, disguises herself as a male judge and finds a loophole that sets Antonio free and sentences Shylock to his demise.
This play, as well as most of Shakespeare’s work, has been heavily analyzed and reproduced countless times since the days of the Bard himself. . Although Shakespeare wrote this with comedy and entertainment in mind, he also incorporated heavy, thought-provoking themes such as the treatment of Shylock as a Jewish person. These serious themes have been highlighted by academia for so long, overshadowing the humor within the other aspects of the play. Faction of Fools and their director, Paul Reisman, was able to bring back the mirth of misunderstanding and mischief in this production. Not only did they emphasize the ubiquitous sexual innuendo of Shakespeare, but they also cast a phenomenal group of actors that added their personal, delightful touch.
Another interesting twist that Faction of Fools added to this production was the incorporation of American Sign Language. The entire cast was hearing except for Alexseiya McBride, who played Jessica and other supporting roles. It was nice to have a Deaf actor to mix it up, but overall the production was definitely geared towards a hearing audience. When Alexseiya signed her lines, sometimes there would be people blocking the audience’s view of her, and when other people were speaking, her character’s fiancé would be with her, pretending to interpret. But most of the time, the fiancé would cut off himself in order to respond to the others. This shows that Jessica’s character seems to be ignored and neglected. I am not sure if this implication was deliberate or an oversight by a predominantly hearing cast and production team. However, Jessica’s character has gone through a lot of neglect and disregard from her father, Shylock, and her fiancé, so perhaps casting a Deaf actress for that role was an artistic choice to show the oppression Jessica experiences.
The production as a whole was very enjoyable, humorous, and I would recommend it to anyone. It is a little raunchy so perhaps it is more appropriate for high school students and older. My only hesitations with The Merchant of Venice was the use of ASL and Deaf characters, as explained earlier, and the accessibility. Faction of Fools are very aware of the needs of the Deaf and hard-of-hearing audience members, especially since they reside at Gallaudet. This production had open captions provided, but the screen was at the very top of the stage, making it difficult to follow the captions and the action onstage simultaneously. But, I appreciated the accuracy and quality of the captions. They allowed me to understand and enjoy the show without having to worry about missing major information. This production has since then closed, but having seen two of Faction of Fools’ shows to date, I would recommend you to grab future opportunities you get to watch their hilarious, intelligent, and fresh take on theater.