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Theater Review: “The Merchant of Venice” at Shakespeare Theatre Company

A bold, over-the-top production of one of the Bard’s most compelling plays

Mark Nelson as Shylock and Amelia Pedlow as Jessica in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of The Merchant of Venice, directed by Ethan McSweeny. Photo by Scott Suchman.

☆☆☆ stars out of four

Intellectuals may call The Merchant of Venice a “conundrum.” For the rest of us, it’s a hodge-podge—tragedy and comedy, serious social commentary, and farcical capers in equal measure.

The main plot is, of course, familiar. A Jewish moneylender, Shylock, agrees to lend 3,000 ducats to a Christian merchant, Antonio. If Antonio fails to repay the loan, Shylock can legally demand a pound of flesh.

But is Shylock evil, or a product of a society that has mistreated him? And is the Merchant of Venice an anti-Semitic play, or a rebuke against anti-Semitism? These are seminal questions that have fascinated audiences for four centuries.

New York actor Mark Nelson is a brilliant Shylock in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s latest production, embittered and authentic in his tortured sense of justice. National Cathedral School alumna Julia Coffey plays Portia with equal power and authority. In a role that’s both ridiculous and sublime, Coffey manages both with great style.

Director Ethan McSweeny is also a local boy made good. He’s taken a risk, setting Merchant in New York in the late 1920s, when Italian and Jewish immigrants bumped up against each other in adjoining neighborhoods. When it works, the effect is stunning. The slick-suited, fedora’d tough guys and the black-garbed Orthodox Jews create a picture straight out of the Daguerreotypes of old New York. They play against a backdrop of the steel girders of an elevated subway, the cafes of Little Italy, and the pushcarts of the Lower East Side. There’s a hilarious scene when some of the Italians dress up like bearded Hasids to help Jessica elope.

What occasionally spoils the picture are the inconsistent accents. Shylock sounds like an Eastern European immigrant; his daughter has the diction of a finishing school deb. Antonio’s other cronies are extras from The Godfather but Bassinio enunciates like an Ivy Leaguer. There are also a few unnecessary distractions, including a lisping Spaniard carrying his dog and a full-sized car wheeled about the stage.

The Merchant of Venice is a powerful play, and the combination of outstanding lead actors and a stunning production make this well worth seeing.

The Merchant of Venice is at Shakespeare Theatre Company through July 24. Tickets ($20-$85), are available via Shakespeare Theatre’s Web site.
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