If the latest Faction of Fools Theatre Company production, “The Merchant of Venice,” were any more lighthearted, its caskets would soar aloft like helium balloons. Working in the company’s signature commedia dell’arte style, director Paul Reisman brings out the comic potential in a work that is usually seen, these days, as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays. Even the famous “quality of mercy” speech provides occasion for a gag, as the heiress Portia, disguised as a male legal whiz, seems to bog down in her argument, only to receive whispered prompting from her maid, who’s equipped with a crib sheet.
All in all, it is a brisk, entertaining, and hyper-accessible production — but it is disturbingly un-disturbing. “Merchant” is, after all, a play that depicts anti-Semitism and grapples, more broadly, with prejudice and the failure of empathy. At a time when surging populism around the world has entwined with xenophobia — and when white nationalists have been celebrating the election of Donald Trump — these themes can hardly be ignored. But Reisman’s staging contains nary a glimmer of darkness: The production seems to push the theme of intolerance under the rug.
This is not to say that every iteration of “Merchant” need take an identical approach. The local theatrical ecology has, after all, benefited from two very different recent productions that explored the play’s disquieting depths: Aaron Posner’s reinvention “District Merchants” at Folger Theatre and the “Merchant of Venice” brought to the Kennedy Center by Shakespeare’s Globe.
Still, a “Merchant” as unswervingly buoyant as this one seems troubling. It’s not as if somber tones are incompatible with commedia dell’arte, the street-theater tradition that was on an upswing in Shakespeare’s day. In 2012, Faction of Fools’ inspired “Hamlecchino: Clown Prince of Denmark” (directed by Matthew R. Wilson) found a black-comic timbre that complemented the original text of “Hamlet,” a tragedy. A comparable fusion of humor and anguish might have fit the bill here.
What this production does wonderfully is show how “Merchant” could ever have been classed among Shakespeare’s comedies. With his mask, featuring bushy eyebrows and mustache, Shylock (Matthew Pauli) is an irascible but slightly doddering villain who’s ripe for comeuppance. In keeping with the play’s first line (“In sooth, I know not why I am so sad”), the eponymous merchant Antonio (Ryan Tumulty) is a neurotic sad-sack who, at one point, bangs his head on the ground out of sheer mopey-ness—a moment in keeping with the stylized movement and slapstick on view throughout the show. (Aaron Cromie designed the fetching masks, and Lynly Saunders the commedia-inflected costumes.)
Entire arcs of plot gain a new aspect, thanks to the clowning aesthetic. The cross-dressing legal masquerade pulled off by the slightly daffy Portia (Natalie Cutcher) and her maid, Nerissa (Teresa Spencer), comes across as a droll half-baked prank, rather than a display of Portia’s savvy. And the story’s romantic couples—including Lorenzo (Ben Lauer) and Shylock’s daughter, Jessica (Alexseyia McBride) — seem cut from the same fabric as the young-lover characters who were commedia staples. (McBride, a Gallaudet University student, delivers her lines in American Sign Language; Lauer signs and speaks when Lorenzo is conversing with Jessica. A caption board above the stage runs throughout the show.)
Faction of Fools has given theatergoers a gift with a series of commedia-flavored productions that have allowed us to see the classics with new eyes. But while throwing a fresh light on “Merchant,” the company has unadvisedly flooded out the shadows.
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. Adapted and directed by Paul Reisman; lighting design, Chris Curtis; composer, Jesse Terrill; props, Crista Noel Smith; ASL consultant and interpreter, Lindsey D. Snyder. With Daniel Flint (also scenic designer) and Vince Eisenson. About 2 hours and 20 minutes. Tickets: $12-$25. Through Dec. 11 at the Eastman Studio Theatre in the Elstad Annex at Gallaudet University, 800 Florida Ave NE. Visit factionoffools.org or call 800-838-3006.