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St. Louis by Richard Green

The Merchant Of Venice
The New Jewish Theatre

Here's a show that answers several awkward questions in some very interesting ways:

1) How does a director stage Shakespeare's famously anti-Semitic play in a Jewish retirement village?

2) If you're a member of a Jewish retirement village, how do you react when someone stages Shakespeare's famously anti-Semitic play right there, in front of you?

3) Is Antonio, the merchant of the title, in love with Bassanio, the romantic lead, or what? And, 4) How do you fit a show with about 20 speaking parts onto a stage about the size of a large gondola?

In order, here are the answers:

1) If you're Robin Weatherall, you direct it beautifully. A lot of the laughs don't quite survive, but others rise to take their place, and Jerry Vogel makes for an intensely spiritual, rational, intimate Shylock. He possesses the lyricism of faithfulness in his darkest moments, crossing almost imperceptibly into monstrousness. Cellini (in a more comical moment) wrote that "at a certain age, men go mad." Shakespeare proves it often enough, but rarely do we see it transpire so well, like night rising up from shadows.

2) If you're like the older Jewish audience I sat with, you worry more about the fate of kindly Kevin Beyer (as Antonio) than about Mr. Vogel's moneylender, as Shylock's knife hovers over his victim's bare chest in the trial scene.

3) Mr. Beyer is clearly a man in his maturity, next to all the striplings in this "coming of age" play. His gray beard defuses a lot of the tattle about Antonio's relationship with Bassanio (Jim Butz, with a heart as big as all outdoors). The age difference adds a beautiful paternal quality to their intense affections.

And 4) As always, cut, cut, cut: Double-casting provides some genuine comic relief with the pompous suitors; servants Lancelot and Gobbo are merged yet again; and poor Salerio is left out, altogether. Or is it Solanio? In either case, our theater's great utility outfielder, David S. Brink, stands in nicely for one or the other.

The Merchant of Venice
Jerry Vogel and Kevin Beyer
This all helps with crowd control. And at the risk of seeming insensitive, Mr. Weatherall has also cast some of the tiniest of all talented performers in St. Louis in this Merchant. That goes a long way toward making the Lilliputian black-box stage here seem almost as big as St. Marco's Square itself. It's a trompe l'oiel as well as a pleasant triumph. Certainly the New Jewish Theatre, for one, can be glad for "small actors."

But what Mr. Brink, along with Lauren Dunagan (a fine beauty who covers all the bases as Portia), the giggly Jennifer Theby (Nerissa), the radiant, long suffering Sarah Cannon (Jessica), Jeff Schoenfeld (Lorenzo) and Phil Kasper (Gratiano) may lack in height they make up in artistic stature. You could stack them up, one upon another's shoulders, and never reach the top of a modern street light. Yet each in their own way brightens up the stage.

The most memorable elements include Jim Butz (Bassanio) in the full flush of fever for Ms. Dunagan, and in his devotion to Antonio. Ms. Theby does nicely, clowning at the expense of some pretty awful suitors. Mr. Schoenfeld is hilariously Spanish (or Puerto Rican) while Tim Kidwell is wickedly funny as the self-petting Moroccan (on top of his quite credible turns as Tubal and the Duke). Director Weatherall also allows some atmospheric Yiddish banter between Mr. Vogel and Ms. Cannon on the sidelines, a nice ghetto-izing touch.

I refuse to pick on Christopher Harris (as Lancelot/Gobbo) because there are very few who could still wring a chuckle from those roles, 400 years after they were written. Mind you, Drew Bell found lots of laughs in a 1999 St. Louis production in those same four shoes (but especially, in those same four socks). However, Ms. Dunagan and Ms. Theby make up for any laughs lost.

Mr. Schoenfeld (Lorenzo) comes out of nowhere with some outstanding romantic qualities on stage while Ms. Dunagan and Ms. Theby are off changing from their trial-scene trousers and back into their gowns of velvet and brocade. The customary byplay leading up to his magical moments, where Mr. Schoenfeld and Ms. Cannon joust jocund with "in such a night ..." could have been shortened, I think. But it's there to cover a costume change, and nobody came up with anything better. And the "ring scene" at the end is not exactly a laff-riot but, critics tell us, it rarely is. (In the 19th century, Irving and Tree and others would cast themselves as Shylock and cut off the "ring scene" entirely, making the trial the absolute climax of the play, taking the show out of its usual "comedy" categorization.)

Here, Jerry Vogel is a barely-suppressed, business-like Shylock, driven to enraged extremes, and Robin Weatherall a well-seasoned director for the production. Both men understand the intimacy of the setting and the pervasive nature of self-righteousness in the modern world. Mr. Vogel is right there in our laps on this little stage, and he's already made up his mind about anti-Semitism and his place in Venice, 1596, to be sure. As he's making his terms with Mr. Beyer over the theatre's most famous payday loan, he's dangerously eloquent with a big shiny knife, dissecting his own lunch.

When he finds himself in the section marked "hath not a Jew eyes ...," it's not the picture of a man driven to an absolute fury like the estimable John Contini in that hot-tempered production of 1999, more appropriate for the much larger Grandel Theater. For this Shylock, in this 100 seat jewel box, it's a moment of sublime isolation: His soul seems as small as a grain of sand, and he regards it, seemingly, from some great height. Mr. Vogel revolves hypnotically upon the iniquity directed at him, and we see how men perpetually at the limits of tolerance are transmuted by the Shakespearean grudge.

Dunsi Dai's stuccoed puzzle-box set opens and closes and folds itself into a pleasant variety of backdrops. And while the press release for the evening seemed to prepare us for a "tragic" Shylock, with implications of 19th century moaning and groaning, that proved to be over-stated, thanks be to God.

Through December 18 (2005) at The New Jewish Theatre, Sarah and Abraham Wolfson Studio Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive. For information, call (314) 442-3283 or visit www.jccstl.com/theater.aspx?pgID=893.


Photo: Lisa Mandel


-- Richard T. Green

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