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WSJ Review: The Merchant of Venice - Art that makes you squirm

Author: Terry Teachout

“The Merchant of Venice,” like “The Taming of the Shrew,” is one of the Shakespeareplays that makes modern audiences feel increasingly and understandably uncomfortable. To interpret the tale of Shylock’s downfall as anything other than anti-Semitic is seemingly to go against plain common sense. But Shakespeare, being a great dramatist, took great care to give the devil his due, portraying Shylock not as a pasteboard villain but as a man of flesh and blood whose malevolence arises in part from the contempt in which he is held by the community in which he lives. “If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” he asks us, and his terrible fate is portrayed not as the deserved fate of all Jews but as the result of his individual choice of murder as the instrument of his vengeance. Add a generous helping of exquisite poetry and the result is a permanent masterpiece that makes you squirm in your seat—if it doesn’t, there’s something wrong with you.

All that said, “The Merchant of Venice” inevitably poses problems for actors and directors who are reluctant to give ethnic offense, and the success of their productions necessarily depends on the ingenuity with which they contrive to draw the sting. Tina Packer, to her credit, confronts the problem head on in her thrilling new Shakespeare & Company production, upping the ante as high as possible by boldly underlining the apparent anti-Semitism of Shakespeare’s text—every repetition of such ugly phrases as “villain Jew” and “dog Jew” cracks through the air like lightning—while simultaneously placing it in a wider theatrical context. Her Shylock (Jonathan Epstein) is a cultivated, well-spoken gent, a man at first glance more sinned against than sinning, which makes it all the more shocking (not least to the disapproving members of his own temple) when he lets the mask slip and confesses his thirst for blood.

Performed in the round in a theater that is normally set up as an Elizabethan-style thrust-stage house, Ms. Packer’s production is at once visually spare and unexpectedly opulent in effect. Tyler Kinney’s costumes are old-fashioned and richly colored, while the set, designed by Kris Stone, consists of little more than a white cross painted on the black stage floor and 11 gorgeously lighted Venetian-style glass spheres hung from the ceiling. Nothing is permitted to divert your eye from the action, and Ms. Packer has taken to theater in the round as if she’d been directing it all her life. Best of all is the scene in which Shylock delivers his “Hath not a Jew eyes” monologue while three tormentors circle him warily like Jets stalking a Shark. You half expect them to pull switchblades and move in for the kill.

Mr. Epstein is the finest Shylock to come my way since the matchless Mike Nussbaumplayed the part at Chicago Shakespeare in 2005. (No, I’m not forgetting Al Pacino.) He is seconded to noteworthy effect by a very fine cast of colleagues, most memorably by John Hadden, who gives us a grave and dignified Antonio, and Kate Abbruzzese, who plays Jessica, Shylock’s disloyal daughter, not as a sweet milksop but as a passion-torn young woman of strong but fissured mind who is all too aware that she is betraying both her father and her faith by running off with Lorenzo (Deaon Griffin-Pressley).

Daniel Levy’s incidental music is extraordinary, very possibly the best I’ve heard for a contemporary Shakespeare staging. Full of chiming harp and quiet group singing by the actors, it includes a version of “Tell me where is fancy bred” that deserves to be published and performed on its own, as well as a magical accompaniment to Lorenzo’s ode to music (“Soft stillness and the night / Become the touches of sweet harmony”) that is directly comparable in quality to “Serenade to Music,” Ralph Vaughan Williams’s beloved 1938 choral setting of the same text.

Not all of the details in Ms. Packer’s production land with equal solidity. She interprets the play as a comedy with a tragedy at its core, to which end she gives Gobbo (played by the talented Thomas Brazzle) far too much free rein to clown at will. No less problematic is the similarly comic Portia of Tamara Hickey, who is chirpy and high-strung to a fault. But these are minor flaws in a production that is successful in every other way—one that makes the strongest possible case for a classic that postmodern audiences are increasingly coming to regard as troublesome.

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Shakespeare & Company is a professional live theatre company in the heart of the Berkshires, presenting a vibrant summer performance season featuring the works of Shakespeare in repertory with classic and contemporary plays. The Company offers one of the most extensive actor training programs by a regional theatre in the country, and is also home to an award-winning and nationally recognized theatre-in-education program.