Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

The Merchant of Venice

Mark Nelson and Benjamin Pelteson
Director Ethan McSweeny's fascinating production of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice for Washington's Shakespeare Theatre Company succeeds in being very funny while making the audience uncomfortable about exactly why they're laughing.

McSweeney has set this story of love and commerce in 1920s New York City: on the one hand, a glamorous world of speakeasies and flappers; on the other, the gritty Lower East Side where immigrants—Eastern European Jews, Italian Catholics—and their American-born children try to find their place. Antonio (Derek Smith) and his friends visit over coffee in a Little Italy cafĂ©, while Tubal (Benjamin Pelteson), friend of the wealthy moneylender Shylock (Mark Nelson), sells vegetables from a pushcart.

This production succeeds in laying out the casual cruelty among all the characters. Shylock is the obvious focus, a man driven to thoughts of violent revenge by anti-Semitic prejudice and betrayal by his daughter Jessica (Amelia Pedlow), but the drawing-room comedy of Portia (Julia Coffey) and her suitors is filled with snobbishness and conspicuous consumption. Why does Bassanio (Drew Cortese) seek Antonio's financial help as he pursues Portia? So he can woo her with "gifts of rich value" from Tiffany's, delivered in a chauffeured car. And Gratiano (Aubrey Deeker), Bassanio's slacker friend who pursues Portia's social secretary Nerissa (Liz Wisan), is more vicious toward Shylock than he has any reason to be.

The urbane Smith and openly emotional Nelson counterbalance each other as the twin centers of the drama. Coffey is an intelligent and spirited Portia who also conveys the underlying sadness of being treated as little more than a commodity. (According to her father's will, she must marry the suitor who selects the correct one of three metal caskets, making her the pea in a shell game.) And Pedlow conveys more sides of Jessica than is seen in many productions of the play.

Andrew Lieberman's expansive set, featuring a structure that suggests an elevated train station, suggests the crowded streets of lower Manhattan as well as the green fields of Belmont, an estate where Portia makes her first appearance in riding clothes and later plays golf with Nerissa. Jennifer Moeller's witty costumes add to the characterizations: the Prince of Morocco (Carl Cofield) is a swashbuckling aviator and the prissy Prince of Arragon (Vaneik Echeverria) a yachtsman with a lapdog.

Shakespeare Theatre Company
The Merchant of Venice June 21st - July 24th
By William Shakespeare
Little Italy:
Antonio: Derek Smith
Bassanio: Drew Cortese
Lorenzo: Matthew Carlson
Gratiano: Aubrey Deeker
Salerio: Andy Murray
Solanio: Tim Getman
Duke: Drew Eshelman
Portia: Julia Coffey
Nerissa: Liz Wisan
Prince of Morocco: Carl Cofield
Prince of Arragon: Vaneik Echeverria
Lower East Side:
Shylock: Mark Nelson
Jessica: Amelia Pedlow
Launcelot Gobbo: Daniel Pearce
Tubal: Benjamin Pelteson
Residents of Lower Manhattan, Servants, Suitors, etc.: Gordon Adams, Travis Blumer, Adam Ewer, Emily Joshi-Powell, Kai Moeller, Khalil Reddick, Kevin Stevens, Paul Stuart, Hannah Wolfe
Directed by Ethan McSweeny
Harman Center for the Arts, Sidney Harman Hall
610 F St. N.W.
Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 202-547-1122 or 877-487-8849 or

Photo: Scott Suchman