The Guthrie Theater
Though there is a trio of young lovers in the play, the show is truly about the titular merchant, Antonio, and his rival, the moneylender Shylock. To help a young friend in love, Antonio borrows money from Shylock, who adds an unusual rider to the contract – if Antonio defaults, he owes the moneylender a pound of his flesh. A series of disasters leaves Antonio in the clutches of Shylock, leaving it up to the aforementioned young lovers to try and set things right.
As Shylock, Robert Dorfman rides the line between troubled victim and malicious villain. Sometime showcasing a number of moods within a single conversation, Dorfman never lets Shylock's long-simmering anger at his position in Venice society get far from the surface. By contrast, Richard Iglewski keeps Antonio more under wraps, never showing fear or even hate, even as his life is about to end.
Dowling tackles the material with typical energy, drawing out the play's humor and vigor. The set (designed by Riccardo Hernandez) is sumptuous, as are the costumes (by Paul Tazewell). Dowling moves the action to the somewhat more sophisticated Venice of the mid-18th century, which not only allows for the aforementioned set and costumes, but also sets the play's conflicts into sharp relief. There are pacing issues, but many of those are from the text. Modern audiences really want the play to wrap up after Antonio is freed, but there is the entire fifth act to go through – including a long business involving a pair of rings and some dull wooing from one of the young couples.
The show's weakest links are two of these performances. Michelle O'Neill crafts a Portia far more interested in playing games with her suitors and then husband than showing affection. It is only when she is disguised as a man that Portia shows us her grace and humanity. Ron Menzel presents a rather bland Bassanio - her suitor and the root cause of all the play's troubles – at first, but finds greater passion during the play's later half.
Still, there are a number of fine performances in the cast. Sally Wingert is excellent as usual as Nerissa. Jim Lichtscheidl accents the "clown" side of Lancelot Gobbo to great effect; and Stephen Pelinski and William Sturdivant have great fun as two of Portia's other suitors.
Yet, for all of the play's humor, romance and light touches, there is a darkness beneath. It's a darkness that leaves Shylock utterly crushed – ruined in business, forced to become a Christian – and Antonio completely alone, while the lovers dance around him. It seems a fate that could visit any of the younger characters, but one that is blissful to ignore.
The Merchant of Venice runs through May 6 at the Guthrie Theater, 812 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis. For tickets and more information call 612-377-2224 or visit www.guthrietheater.org.