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This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the November 8,
2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Review: `The Merchant of Venice’
You can see how the elements of friendship, love,
and overt anti-Semitism, so tenuously blended in Shakespeare’s
Merchant of Venice," have been handsomely and effectively
to the mid 20th century by director Richard Corley for the New Jersey
Shakespeare Festival. Corley, who is making his Festival debut with
"Merchant," is the associate producing director of the Acting
Company in New York. It’s an auspicious debut. Whenever, in the past,
that I was compelled to sit through this hard-to-laugh at comedy,
I had to resort to finding solace in almost everything but the story
and the eternal enigma regarding Shakespeare’s true intention and
purpose. But Corley not only validates modern Venice as the commercial
and financial center of a man’s world, but has cast the play with
players who take a skillful and stylish new world approach to the
text, none of which is treated disrespectfully.
That the sages have told us that money is the root of all evil, and
that Shakespeare, in his own logistically insular vision, equates
that evil with Jews is certainly the central issue in his
play. The subliminal Christian fear of Jews is made as clear in this
play as is their fear of blacks is in "Othello." You’ll easily
grasp why Corley has cast a black actress in the role of Shylock’s
daughter Jessica. While both plays are propagandistic masterpieces,
I don’t intend to make this a forum for my personal distaste and
for Shakespeare’s manifest biases.
It is also quite evident in "Merchant’s" brilliant trial
in which Shylock argues, "You have among you many a purchased
slave, Which like your asses and your dogs and mules, You use in
and in slavish parts," that Shakespeare has every intention to
create compassion and empathy for the moneylender who demands his
"pound of flesh." Shakespeare, in this one revealing scene,
demonstrates the insidious double standards that applied, even then,
in the courts of law. I faced the evening knowing that my own
regarding Shylock’s portrayal could make it a bumpy night.
We can all be grateful to Corley, who apparently has figured out just
how to best cope with the three interlocking plots, and also to the
play’s star, Nicholas Kepros, whose performance not only signals an
honest, believable approach to Shylock’s ethnicity, but rewards us
with an indulgence into the character’s sense of humor. While Kepros’
performances, both on and off-Broadway, in "You Never Can
"Timon of Athens," and "Rameau’s Nephew," have given
me great pleasure, his portrayal of the shrewd and bitter usurer
is a peak.
Although I could spend time carping about some of the other players’
occasionally un-lyrical bending of lines, Kepros was always at the
center of the play and able to convince us that Shylock was nobody’s
fool, and yet still begging to be foiled. Kepros’ technique is not
as strewn with awe for the language as much as it is with affection
for a man capable of carving a pound of flesh from his debtor,
If sharpening his blade on the soles of his shoes during the riveting
courtroom scene seems too calculatingly amusing, Kepros otherwise
displays an acute sensitivity and restraint in developing Shylock’s
more humane, if not his more charming, side.
Aside from the fact that the relationship between Shylock and his
daughter Jessica appears more remote than usual, Jessica’s hardened
sentiments toward her smothering father appear to surface arbitrarily
and without conviction. This may not be the fault of Joy Hooper who,
as the Jewess, converts to Christianity as playfully as she appears
to betray her father. Except for a frightful long blond wig that looks
like a tangled horse’s tail, Kate Forbes is a lovely and spunky
Since none of the play’s blank verse reaches the level of Portia’s
famous speech beginning, "The quality of mercy is not
Forbes, has the added advantage in the play of eloquence.
The company is notable for the high-tech gloss its imparts upon its
Shakespearean characters. Notwithstanding his slavish Christian
and overt anti-Semitism, Antonio, the title character, couldn’t have
had a more distinguished looking or melancholy disposed interpreter
than Mark Elliot Wilson. Stevie Ray Dallimore was suitably dashing
in his soldier’s uniform and personable enough to minimize his lack
of character as Bassanio, Antonio’s impecunious and irresponsible
friend. A bespectacled Veronica Watt affected a prim presence as
secretary (formerly a handmaid) and confidante. Laughs come easily
listening to Phillip Christian affect an exaggerated Middle Eastern
accent as Prince Morocco, and Conan McCarty, as the equally
Prince of Arrogon. The comedy was also well served by Jonathan
as the clownish servant Launcelot Gobbo, and by Robert Hock, as his
Except for that silly, certainly unfixable wrap-up scene, Corley
his company with aplomb through the play’s puns, quibbles, and
and through designer Larry W. Brown’s setting, simply and elegantly
served by a massive golden doorway and drapes. Costumer Linda Cho
dressed the principal men smartly in either black tie or dark business
suits, but made Portia the principal eye-catcher in stunning
gowns. Corley has staged this "Merchant of Venice" not as
a play with problems, but as a romance of modern times still designed
to confound but never dismay. This is one "Merchant" you don’t
have to worry about doing business with.
— Simon Saltzman
Kirby Theater, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, 973-408-5600. $24 to $35.
Www.njshakespeare.org. Through November 19.
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