The quality of mercy can in fact be strained, especially when it comes to the fate of a central character in one of Shakespeare's greatest plays. Notwithstanding its oft-quoted proverbs and ingenious plot, "The Merchant of Venice" continues to spark controversy over its depiction of the Jewish money-lender Shylock and his humiliation at the hands of Judeo-phobic society.
Ellen Geer's staging at the outdoor Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum fearlessly tackles the theme of anti-Semitism raised by the play head-on, with the benefit of a commanding performance from Alan Blumenfeld as Shylock.
Blumenfeld doesn't soft-peddle Shylock's monstrous demand for a pound of flesh from the defaulting merchant (Franc Ross) of the play's title, ominously sharpening his long dagger in gleeful anticipation of a court verdict in his favor. At the same time, the actor masterfully grounds the character's animosity in vengeance for the revulsion and abuse he repeatedly receives from Christians, evoking the full measure of aggrieved dignity in the eloquent "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech. To further humanize Shylock, Geer adds a touching scene in which he visibly softens at the lullaby sung to him by his daughter Jessica (Maia Luer).
Overlaying the world of 1500s Venice with distinctly modern urgency amid anti-Semitic incidents worldwide, Geer proves an equal opportunity social critic. A new opening scene explicitly shows Shylock being taunted and spat upon, events only referenced after the fact in the text.
The play's comic touches also receive their due — most notably Melora Marshall's antics as the clown Launcelot, and a whimsical musical adaptation of the famous gold, silver and lead casket stratagem to dissuade unwanted suitors.
Nevertheless, not all the mirth that glitters signifies a heart of gold. Despite the play's formal classification as a comedy (it ends in marriage rather than a heap of dead bodies), bad behavior abounds on all sides. The production's sharpened focus on moral ambiguity extends even to Willow Geer's steely, unsentimental turn as Portia, the quick-witted ostensible heroine who disguises herself as a lawyer to turn the tables on Shylock. Not content with getting the merchant off the hook through legal sophistry, she further twists the knife to strip Shylock of his property, citizenship and even his religious identity.
In putting anti-Semitism so prominently on display, was Shakespeare denouncing it or did he share the sentiment? That the question remains debated after 400 years attests to the play's complexity. In this accomplished staging, the qualities of mercy and cruelty are both strained to their limits.
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‘The Merchant of Venice’
Where: Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga
When: Runs in repertory through Oct. 1
Info: (310) 455-3723 or www.theatricum.com
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
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