STAGE REVIEW : A Potent 'Merchant of Venice'

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

The biggest disappointment at the Saturday opening of the Grove Shakespeare Festival's "The Merchant of Venice" was the sparseness of the audience--not much more than 50% of capacity at the Festival Amphitheatre in Garden Grove for a season inaugural production that deserves much, much better.

It is one of the clearest and best acted of Grove stagings, rigorously simple in its aesthetics, from the acting to the geometrically clean lines of Don Llewellyn's set, David C. Palmer's lighting and Lyndall L. Otto's elegantly detailed costumes.

It offers one of Shakespeare's thorniest plays--thorny not merely because it makes a Jew its nominal villain, but because it is so poorly structured, morally ambiguous and vague in its outcome. Not that Shakespeare didn't have many opportunities to tie up the loose ends, but that, for whatever reason, he chose not to do so.

It's a little late to suggest rewrites, but this inattention to a plot that can't decide if it is comic or tragic, if it is one story or two, if it is over when it's over, adds complicating injury to marginal insult.

The insult is marginal, because Shakespeare's Jew of Venice is no more real than was his Moor of Venice, and both Shylock and Othello are set apart and wronged by far more evil and/or banal connivers than they could ever be.

Much ink has been spilt on examinations of the character of Shylock (played here by Alan Mandell with firmness and exceptional sensitivity but no wimpy abdication to sentiment) and to the context of this play in which, in the end, only Shylock's devoted friend Tubal (Kent Miller)--another Jew--emerges with any compassion or moral integrity.

Shylock's "bond," with Antonio, the merchant of the title (a somewhat opaque Richard Hoyt Miller in an opaquely written role), is the ludicrous request of a pound of Antonio's flesh. It's offered in jest at first, though Shylock makes no secret of his contempt for the man who has often slurred him in public. But the pound is claimed only after Shylock is crazed with grief at the elopement of his daughter, Jessica (Rebecca Marcotte), with the Christian Lorenzo (Donald S. Mackay), exacerbating all his resentment of the historical mistreatment of Jews.

Antonio's friendship with Bassanio (David Anthony Smith), for whom he borrowed the money, the interference in the trial of Bassanio's Portia (a classy Elizabeth Norment), the side-plot involving Nerissa (Elizabeth Dement) and Gratiano (a terrific Ron Campbell), to say nothing of the caskets and princes and Gobbos, are all disparate elements more forced into compliance with, than integral to, the story or stories.

This messiness leaves a director some leeway. By assembling his highly professional, well-spoken company and focusing his direction of the play on the thoroughly un-Christian behavior of so many of the Christians in it, Thomas F. Bradac makes what everyone always hopes for: a subtle but compelling case against intolerance.

He has done it by retaining the integrity of the text almost entirely, choosing instead certain tacit emphases that speak volumes--notably, a troubled Jessica visibly disenchanted by her husband and her new life among Christians.

Bradac's removal of Antonio's first line, "In sooth, I know not why I am so sad," from the beginning to the very end of the play, anchors it in darkness where, for this production, it belongs.

The Grove has set itself a daunting task this year, tackling two more of Shakespeare's controversial plays: "Measure for Measure" and "The Taming of the Shrew."

This beginning is auspicious.

'The Merchant of Venice'

Alan Mandell: Shylock

David Anthony Smith: Bassanio

Richard Hoyt Miller: Antonio

Ron Campbell: Gratiano

Elizabeth Norment: Portia

Elizabeth Dement: Nerissa

Rebecca Marcotte: Jessica

Donald S. Mackay: Lorenzo

Matthew Walker: Launcelot Gobbo

Roger Christofferson: Old Gobbo

Eric Bryant Wells: Solanio

Christopher Michael Wolfe: Salerio

Carl Reggiardo: Duke of Venice

James Geralden: Prince of Morocco

Scott Allen: Prince of Arragon

Kent Miller: Tubal

Mark O'Bar: Leonardo/Gaoler

A Grove Shakespeare Festival production of the play by William Shakespeare. Director Thomas F. Bradac. Sets Don Llewellyn. Lights David C. Palmer. Costumes Lyndall L. Otto. Makeup and hair design Cary Christensen. Composer Chuck Estes. Sound John Fisher. Stage manager Nevin Hedley.

NEXT STEP

This seems to be the year of "The Merchant of Venice." The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland has a production on its boards. And Jack O'Brien is directing a modern-dress version that opens Friday at the San Diego Old Globe. Hal Holbrook plays Shylock, with Geoffrey Lower (Bassanio), Richard Easton (Antonio), Kandis Chappell (Portia) and Andrea Fitzgerald (Jessica). Sets are by Ralph Funicello; costumes by Lewis Brown. It runs though Aug. 11. Tickets: $17.50-28.50. Information: (619) 239-2255.

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