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Anti-Semitism in Shakespeare’s Time

Where other contemporary productions might tiptoe around the anti-Semitism in “The Merchant of Venice,” Dancing Dog Theatre Company offers no apologies in staging the work under its alternate title, “The Jew of Venice.”

Spotlighting the prejudice in Shakespeare’s time--and in the playwright himself--is director Brian Van Dusen’s overriding agenda as he assumes the role of Shylock and transforms the vengeful moneylender into a tragically abused innocent.

His first entrance wearing the yellow armband required for ghetto residents in 1598 Venice establishes Shylock as an outcast, and the mockery of the Christians around him is particularly sharp-edged.

Certainly there’s a basis for this tension, which the production extends even to the disdain of Portia (Kristine Kraus) for her princely but dark-skinned Moroccan suitor. The energy level in this otherwise undistinguished production rises noticeably at each prick of the social conscience.

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But no matter how high-minded the intent, Shakespeare’s text is not a Rorschach inkblot open to any interpretation. In the crucial trial scene, Van Dusen violates the play’s dramatic boundaries when his Shylock, poised to cut the pound of flesh from Antonio (Larry Eisenberg), actually drops the knife and begins laughing, suggesting that he never meant to exact his horrific bond.

The complete exoneration of Shylock in this “just kidding” spin kills the suspense and diminishes the subsequent legal arguments by the disguised Portia--she’s no longer rescuing Antonio, for his life clearly isn’t in danger by the time she intervenes.

Whatever Shakespeare’s attitude toward Jews may have been, he wasn’t this bad a dramatist.

* “The Jew of Venice,” Gene Dynarski Theatre, 5600 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. Wednesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m. Ends Oct. 15. $12 (two-for-one on Wednesdays). (213) 739-3910. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

The Real Horror Behind ‘Irma Vep’

Lightning-fast role-switching by two performers is the raison d’etre for Charles Ludlam’s campy sendup of ‘30s-style horror mysteries, “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” yet in Right Side Productions/ Pacific West’s toxic staging, even the costume changes are agonizingly prolonged.

But what happens between the changes is the real horror as director Joseph Mustacchi lures actors Sean Galezka and Ahmad Enani through a succession of irritating caricatures, each more shamelessly overplayed than the last. When they’re tired of mugging at each other as a wooden-legged werewolf, a homicidal bug-eyed housekeeper, a menacing aristocrat and his ditzy new bride, the performers break character and mug directly at the audience.

As a bonus, the 15-minute second act is staged as a shadow play lit by strobe light to suggest an old-fashioned cinema. It may trigger a migraine or an epileptic seizure, but at least then you can go home early.

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* “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” Complex, 6474 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Indefinitely. $15. (213) 969-9234. Running time: 2 hours.


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