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The Doctor of Rome

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

In our current entertainment culture, sequels are a common occurrence. True, they're mostly driven by corporate interests, the companies behind the films wanting to make additional money off of an already established formula, but sometimes, there is truly more story to tell.

Nat Colley felt strongly enough about The Merchant of Venice to write such a sequel to it. That's The Doctor of Rome, being produced by the Revolving Shakespeare Company (in rep with Merchant) at the Greenwich Street Theatre. Though it uses the same set and many of the cast members, the production has a new director (Daniel Colb Rothman) and, of course, much new to say.

The Doctor of Rome is set eighteen years after the end of The Merchant of Venice. Daniel (John Peterson), the grandson of the Jewish moneylender Shylock (now deceased), is ready to make his way in the world. He longs to marry Portia's servant, Rachel (Bethany Butler), but lacks the money and respect he needs. When he discovers the truth of his Jewish ancestry, he finds his own opinions of the world (and his place in it) challenged.

Colley, you see, has made Daniel openly disparaging of the Jewish faith, his mother Jessica (Dara Seitzman) having hid her own background from him his whole life. So, when Daniel must face his true heritage, in true dramatic fashion, he must answer for his crimes, and this comes in the way of the savage beating from disgruntled traders on the Rialto that ends the first act.

Colley is hardly one for subtlety, a quality that turns up time and again here. The play doesn't describe later events in the characters' lives as much as it imposes the structure of the original play upon them. How likely is it, for example, that a courtroom scene almost identical to the first one would occur, with - of course - opposite results this time around? Or that the move away from Judaism in the first play would truly be answered with a move toward it so quickly?

The Doctor of Rome works best when it expands on the original play's ideas rather than changing or drastically reinterpreting its events. Most of the time The Doctor of Rome feels like unimaginative fan fiction, with the intrigued (or perhaps angered) Colley desperate to deal with the original play on a modern battlefield. That makes The Doctor of Rome more of a response than a sequel, toppling the original play's concept of "happily ever after." (Think Into the Woods or The Fantasticks.) While not necessary invalid, the necessity of this particular response to a play written in the 1590s is never made clear.

Without the input of the original author, The Doctor of Rome lacks any real stylistic consistency with its source. The language is a modern approximation of Shakespearean English at best, and the play itself seems to exist inside no particular time period. Its placement in 1946 seems so arbitrary, it's impossible to not wonder if the previous production of The Merchant of Venice was not placed in 1928 simply out of a need to put this play somewhere when it belongs nowhere.

The actors are game, however, and do their best. Lanie MacEwan and Miles Phillips do fine by Portia and Bassanio, despite facing almost embarrassing turns of fate in Colley's hands. Peterson is good as Daniel, and Butler makes a highly appealing Rachel. Lawrence Merritt is quietly threatening as the trader Largo, and Brian Linden brings plenty of comedy (a good deal of it most likely unintended) to the Duke of Venice.

Audience members leaving The Doctor of Rome may find themselves wondering why The Merchant of Venice needed a sequel in the first place. Colley's reasons are seldom made clear here. Though The Doctor of Rome contains a few interesting moments and a nicely balanced production, I'm not sure William Shakespeare would have approved.

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