A Sugar Daddy, Pound of Flesh and Chiselled Abs: Bard on the Beach’s Reinterpretation of The Merchant of Venice

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There’s just something about a hunky actor running around on stage shirtless that makes a gal appreciate Shakespeare in a whole new light.

Indeed, though I’d read The Merchant of Venice and seen it performed several times before, Bard on the Beach’s latest take on the classic tale made it completely new to me – in addition to the male eye candy (which frankly, would have been enough to keep me entertained), this production throws a hilarious set of spitting Spaniards, an excitable sword-swinging Moroccan prince and unrequited homosexual love into the mix.

It’s exactly the kind of innovation and creativity I’ve come to expect from Bard on the Beach, which celebrates its 22nd birthday in Vanier Park this summer. No matter how well you might think you know Shakespeare and his work, this remarkable company never fails to offer a thoroughly unique and original theatre experience. Because I’ve only ever been dazzled by Bard on the Beach productions, my expectations going into Saturday night’s opening of The Merchant of Venice were extremely high. Once again, I was not disappointed.

For those who’ve not yet read the play or can’t recall all the details, here’s the Cliff notes version:

Bassanio (played by the dreamy Charlie Gallant, whom as I’ve mentioned does strip down at one point), needs cash to romance Portia (Lindsey Angell), a wealthy heiress. He asks his good friend Antonio (Duncan Fraser) for help. As Antonio’s money is wrapped up in ventures at sea, he seeks to secure a loan from Shylock (Richard Newman). Shylock, who has suffered various insults from Antonio because he is a Jew, decrees that Antonio must provide a pound of his own flesh should the loan not be repaid within three months. Antonio, confident his wealth will be replenished before then, agrees to the terms. Meanwhile, over at Portia’s palatial estate, Moroccan (an actual Moroccan, not to be confused with Nick Cannon and Mariah Carey’s offspring) and Spanish princes are also vying for her affections. But there’s a glitch- her recently deceased Dad has willed it that she can only marry the man who selects the correct casket from a choice of gold, silver and base lead. Not surprisingly, our hero Bassanio wins the rich girl’s heart and then dashes back to Venice to save Antonio from Shylock’s cruel contract.

But here’s what is surprising – director Rachel Ditor sets up a homoerotic relationship between Antonio and Bassanio that isn’t present in Shakespeare’s text. Here, Antonio is a much older gentleman who is clearly infatuated with Bassanio’s pretty boy looks and Bassanio uses this to his advantage – sauntering around bare-chested and flashing googly eyes to his older patron when he charmingly begs for money. Ditor presents a sugar daddy relationship here that, though it had never occurred to me before, makes perfect sense and fits flawlessly within the story.

The wide-eyed craziness of actor Luc Rodrique’s zany Moroccan prince and the lisping, glove-flinging flamboyance of John Murphy’s prince of Aragon were also clever touches that added some serious belly laughs to the evening.

Overall, whether you’re a Shakespeare fan or whether the writer’s name instantaneously triggers painful memories of high school English classes, this show has enough charm and depth to keep anyone riveted in their seats.

Or at the very least, go for the male strip show. Me-ow!

The Merchant of Venice runs in Vanier Park until September 23. Tickets are available at bardonthebeach.org.

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Kristen McKenzie 

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