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The Merchant of Venice

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

William Shakespeare's comedies are usually a sufficient cure for the cares of the modern world. One of them, though, toes the boundaries between comedy and drama very closely, being both a story of anti-Semitism, tragedy, and death and the traditional comedic staples of cross-dressing and love. Yes, The Merchant of Venice has something for everyone.

Director Ralph Carhart has set his new production of the play at the Greenwich Street Theatre in the Venice of 1927, at the beginning of the rise of fascism. It's an interesting choice, one that provides the production with some nice sets, costumes, and atmospheric music. But it doesn't add much to the show; for the most part, you won't be leaving this production looking at The Merchant of Venice in a new way.

The primary exception can be found in perhaps the play's most famous character, Shylock. Lou Tally gives an intriguing performance as the Jewish money lender who is all too eager to see the money owed him repaid with a pound of flesh close to the heart of Antonio, the Merchant of the play's title. Tally seems part of both the present-day and 1927, a victim of the current hostilities in the Middle East, as well as a future victim of the oncoming horrors of World War II.

Shylock's world may not be quite as terrifying, but in a town where he is too frequently looked down upon because he's Jewish, even the smallest taunts can seem as significant as a concentration camp. Shylock, though, is only part of the story, in only a few of the play's scenes.

The dramatic depth of The Merchant of Venice comes from Shylock, but Shakespeare's efforts are generally focused elsewhere, primarily on the story of the young woman Portia, promised to whichever man can extract her portrait from the sole correct cask among a choice of three. Shylock's scenes have a brooding immediacy about them, while Portia's scenes bear a more dreamlike quality, as if Carhart and Shakespeare did not have the same ideas about the most important concepts to present.

Still, it's through the story of Portia (almost entirely) that Carhart has chosen to define his production comedically. Lanie MacEwan, as Portia, has a light dramatic touch that suggests even the most cast-off joke could become great humor in a second. Her confidant, Nerissa, is played by Susan Hyon in another strong performance. The two of them constantly pass glances to one another, communicating volumes while hardly speaking a word to each other when others are present.

The best example occurs when one of her potential suitors, the Prince of Arragon, visits. Played by Rob Langeder with a ridiculously overdone mustache and accent, the Prince looks as if he has just walked in from a gig as an amateur mariachi band musician. His portrayal - never shying away from caricature - is utterly hilarious and involving, even (or perhaps especially) at its most unreal, and MacEwan and Hyon drive the scene home with their reactions as well.

MacEwan handles her character's arc very successfully, but not every other performance in the show is as well executed. Antonio (Mendelson) and Bassanio (Miles Phillips), to whom he lends money, give decent performances, but don't really shine in the more necessarily dramatic moments of the second half. Matthew Pendergast, like most of the other actors in the show's smaller roles, seems somewhat lost as the servant Launcelot.

If a bit unbalanced, Carhart's The Merchant of Venice remains stylish and enjoyable, a production that will please at least temporarily, but perhaps not stick with you for longer.

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Revolving Shakespeare Company
The Merchant of Venice in rep with The Doctor of Rome
Through June 1
Greenwich Street Theater, 547 Greenwich Street two blocks south of Houston
Schedule and Tickets: (212)255-3940