Corrections or additions?

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,

revenge

and overt anti-Semitism, so tenuously blended in Shakespeare’s

"The

Merchant of Venice," have been handsomely and effectively

transferred

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

controversial

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

disdain

for Shakespeare’s manifest biases.

It is also quite evident in "Merchant’s" brilliant trial

scene,

in which Shylock argues, "You have among you many a purchased

slave, Which like your asses and your dogs and mules, You use in

abject

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

prejudices

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

Tell,"

"Timon of Athens," and "Rameau’s Nephew," have given

me great pleasure, his portrayal of the shrewd and bitter usurer

arrogant

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,

Antonio.

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

Portia.

Since none of the play’s blank verse reaches the level of Portia’s

famous speech beginning, "The quality of mercy is not

strain’d,"

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

virtues

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

Portia’s

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

foolish-sounding

Prince of Arrogon. The comedy was also well served by Jonathan

Uffelman,

as the clownish servant Launcelot Gobbo, and by Robert Hock, as his

sand-blind father.

Except for that silly, certainly unfixable wrap-up scene, Corley

hurtles

his company with aplomb through the play’s puns, quibbles, and

conceits

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

cream-colored

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

The Merchant of Venice, New Jersey Shakespeare Festival’s

Kirby Theater, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, 973-408-5600. $24 to $35.

Www.njshakespeare.org. Through November 19.


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