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Theatre Review: The Merchant of Venice

By Bence Olveczky
staff reporter

American Repertory Theater

64 Brattle Street, Cambridge


Through January 24

$2355, student discount available

During these sorry days of Desert Foxes and impeachment proceedings, in which venomous hypocrisy is countered only by righteous grandstanding, it is a relief to see a show that emphasizes the qualities of compassion and clemency. In American Repertory Theatre's visceral and daring version of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice," mercy and forgiveness transforms a morally corrupt Venice into something enduring, if not endearing. Mercantile cynicism and bigotry is temporarily suspended by an ensemble of intriguing characters who show us that love and self-deception (is it not the same thing?) can bridge the daunting gaps between moral ideals and their imperfect human renderings.

"The Merchant of Venice," one of Shakespeare's most popular plays, is a true challenge for theater directors in our politically correct post-holocaust times. The main stumbling block is Shakespeare's unflattering portrayal of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. In dealing with this anti-Semitic element of the play, modern directors have traditionally stretched their interpretation to the point where "The Merchant" has become a parable for the suffering of Jews in the 20th century. Romanian director Andrei Serban chooses not to follow this trend. Rather he remains faithful to The Bard's original intentions, which, it must be said, were neither anti-Semitic nor vile.

In "The Merchant," Shakespeare sets two moralities against each other. The idea of rightful revenge ("an eye for an eye") is symbolized by Shylock, while the Christian tenet of unconditional forgiveness ("forgive and you will be forgiven") is represented in the play by the heiress of Belmont, Portia.

"The Jew," as Shylock is referred to throughout the play, is reluctant to lend his money to the Venetian Merchant Antonio, and agrees only after the merchant stakes a pound of his own flesh as guarantee. Soon after the deal is done, Shylock is delivered a painful blow when his daughter Jessica leaves him for the warm embrace of her Christian lover, stealing his money in the process. Disgraced by what he sees as an insult to his pride and integrity, Shylock is hungering for revenge.

Antonio, who unselfishly borrowed the money to allow his best friend Bassanio to travel to Belmont and marry the beautiful Portia, receives the news that his ships have been lost at sea. Rendered unable to repay the loan, he finds himself at the mercy of a bitter and revengeful Shylock. "The Jew" is sharpening his knife, ready to cut out Antonio's heart, when Portia, aware that she has precipitated the tragic situation, arrives to the scene disguised as a judge.

She pleads with Shylock to spare Antonio's life, but the unrelenting moneylender clamors to his rights, showing no mercy. In an unexpected twist of events, Portia finds a clause in the Venetian Law that makes Shylock's claim to Antonio's life a punishable crime. Instead of getting his revenge, Shylock is stripped of his belongings. As a final insult, "the Jew" is forced to convert to Christianity.

Rather than making "The Merchant of Venice" into a morality tale, the American Repertory Theatre's production is an ambiguous and ambivalent story of human frailty. We are presented with a gallery of complex personalities possessing a wide range of characteristics, both enviable and base.

Will LeBow's Shylock, while greedy and revengeful, is also a sharp and intelligent survivor who realizes that to assimilate he needs to play along with the Gentile's preconceptions of what a moneylending Jew is like. He does so with humor and distance, never giving up his integrity.

Antonio is portrayed by Jonathan Epstein as a closet homosexual (a popular rendering these days) whose love for the handsome Bassanio is a source of both pleasure and sadness. Not unlike Shylock, his tortured soul is a consequence of having to conform to rigid social stereotypes. Bassanio, played with youthful vigor and innocence by Andrew Garman, is the beneficiary of Antonio's generosity. Flattered and honored by the Merchant's attention and love, Bassanio continuously fails when put to the test by his true love, Portia.

The beautiful Heiress, gracefully enacted by Kristin Flanders, is the symbol of mercy and redemption. Her Belmont is the Garden of Eden, represented on an otherwise sparsely decorated stage by Marielle Banou's and William Bonnell's beautiful folding screens in bright pastel colors. Venice, in contrast, gets a blood red and golden tint. The atmosphere and sense of drama is further enhanced by Elizabeth Swados' expressive score, performed live by ART's musicians.

As always in Shakespeare's plays, there are plenty of comic interludes to make the most out of these situations. He blends slapstick comedy with Comedia dell'Arte, infusing this difficult and ambiguous play with moments of pure and unadulterated entertainment.

To his credit and our enjoyment, Serban has made "The Merchant" into a fast-paced, three-hour theatrical feast that is at once subtly provoking, intellectually challenging, and highly entertaining just like good theater should be. Go and see it while you can.