The Game Plan

“The Merchant of Venice” is a pretty production with a charismatic cast

Posted by Carten Cordell / Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” is an awkward play. Because we view it through a post-World War II lens, it is discomforting to see the characters bully Shylock, a Jewish investor, because of his religion. As the characters in the play seek love – Portia and Bassanio, Nerissa and Gratiano, Jessica and Lorenzo – they completely disregard Shylock. When he seeks justice from the state, the only thread of hope he has left, it turns on him in an unbearable, anti-Semitic ruling. Yet, this is considered one of Shakespeare’s comedies, and the unredeemable ending makes it a tough task for a director.

The benefit of being a part of a well-known theatre company is that you can present even the worst of shows in a pretty package.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “The Merchant of Venice” started with a well-choreographed number by Karma Camp, which immediately set the mood for the show’s fast-paced, early-20th century New York setting. The following scene, however, opened to a gaggle of actors trying for laughs. It seemed as though the big set and large performance space was eating up their sound and though they played big to compensate, their delivery read as attempts instead of successes.

Derek Smith as Antonio and Julia Coffey as Portia in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of The Merchant of Venice, directed by Ethan McSweeny. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Speaking of the set, Andrew Lieberman’s design was gorgeous. The grand staircase, dual-level space, and numerous entry ways gave the show a good sense of flow, all while maintaining a facelessness necessary for the various settings in which the characters encounter one another. The show ran a noticeably Shakespearean two hours and forty-five minutes long, but the overlapping exits and entrances of scenes, aided by the set design, helped heighten the momentum at lagging moments.

The show picked up as Portia, played by Julia Coffey, entered. Her introductory scene with an elaborately choreographed on-stage costume change not only stayed true to her carefree, spoiled character but was well-acted and entertaining to watch. Liz Wisan complemented Coffey’s performance with a matronly Nerissa, who was a nostalgic reminder of Chessy from the Parent Trap.

Carl Cofield and Vaneik Echeverria made for entertaining Princes and the quirky nuances which they developed for their characters made them the center of attention during their short but well-played scenes. It was evident that both actors were in tune with their characters and what was going on around them and the audience applauded for their delightful humor at their exits. Daniel Pearce also stole the stage as Launcelot Gobbo, whose total physical performance was captivating.

Excellent costume choices from designer Jennifer Moeller added to the comedy of the show, especially during Jessica’s escape scene. I can’t complain about the music score, the blocking and staging of the actors in large scenes, or the quotable text. But though the show had a workable New York setting, director Ethan McSweeney failed to give it a higher meaning. Why do the women seem to own the world? Could Antonio’s love for Bassanio ever be acknowledged by the characters? Was there a higher hope for Shylock? What would become of the characters that drove him away after World War II shocked the world?

Perhaps I yearned for Shylock’s recompense because Mark Nelson acted the part so well – and my passing mention does not do him justice. But I do feel that an answer or at least recognition of any one of those questions through a director’s note or on stage choice would have helped me to understand why I needed to see the show now, in this time and place. Instead, it had no message to offer me. It was just a pretty production of a popular play.

For more information visit www.shakespearetheatre.org. “The Merchant of Venice” will run through July 24 in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall.

–Clara Ritger

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