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The Merchant of Venice

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Hannah Rose Goalstone and Bill Coyne.
Photo by Allison Stock.
The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare's more challenging plays to parse or to present. Among his oeuvre, it is designated as a comedy, but anyone who is familiar with the story of Shylock and his revenge-driven demand for "a pound of flesh" from Antonio, the titular merchant, is unlikely to consider it to be a comedy by any stretch of the definition. Yet, like the characters that inhabit it, the play lives in two different worlds, with the disturbing drama playing out alongside what is indeed a romantic comedy. It is this dichotomy that The Shakespeare Forum has chosen to highlight in its production of The Merchant of Venice, now on view at The Gym at Judson.

It is important to understand how the company has approached the play in order to avoid being storm-tossed by the shifts in tone that define the production, which boasts not one, but two directors, Sybille Bruun, The Shakespeare Forum's executive director, and Andrew Borthwick-Leslie, of the Massachusetts-based Shakespeare & Co. The audience at the performance I attended went back and forth between periods of laughter and times of utter silence, and both of these responses were perfectly appropriate reactions to what was being enacted.

For the dramatically "heavy" part of the play, the production emphasizes every bit of intolerance that occurs. I don't know when I have ever been so aware of the number of times the word "Jew" is used in a pejorative way, and where it is so clear that both overt and casual racism run throughout the dialog. It is also during the more serious scenes that the cast adheres most closely to the cadences of Shakespeare's heightened language, helping to imbue the production with a feeling of deep sadness, where even the noble Portia is capable of an off-hand racist remark about one of her suitors and where we are reminded pointedly that the Venetians are slave-owners.

By way of contrast, the comic elements are equally emphasized, with lots of running around, silliness, and breeching of the fourth wall. In these scenes, the Elizabethan cadences are given a contemporary twist. At times, I found the silly stuff to be a bit too much, but it all is clearly intentionally done this way, and the actors do a good job of juggling the changes in tone, as when Francis Mateo runs off the stage after wildly clowning as Launcelot Gobbo and returns moments later as the very serious Morocco, the first of Portia's suitors we see attempting to unravel the riddle of the caskets.

Of the rest of the cast, Hannah Rose Goalstone as Portia bridges these shifts most effectively. She is equally at home with the romantic comedy elements and within her disguise as the young legal scholar delivering the "quality of mercy" speech. Also giving strong performances are Dominic Comperatore as Antonio, Bill Coyne as Bassanio, Joseph J. Menino as Shylock, Imani Jade Powers as Jessica, and Michael Moreno, a crowd pleaser as the ebullient Gratiano.

The Shakespeare Forum is to be commended for finding an approach to The Merchant of Venice that so strongly emphasizes the contrasting elements of the play without losing the bard's language or attempting to foolishly update it. I found the dramatic elements to be particularly strong, with the tone of racial and religious intolerance to be quite contemporary and a sad commentary on the global strife we see unfolding on a daily basis. The directors' note in the program that they hope to "add to the vital dialogue surrounding ideas of tolerance, acceptance, and the breadth of the human perspective." In that, they have certainly succeeded.

The Merchant of Venice
Through June 14
Gym at Judson, 243 Thompson Street at Washington Square South
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix