By Vicki Weisfeld
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey opens its 2017 season with Shakespeare’s dark comedy, The Merchant of Venice, about, as the theater describes it “A money-obsessed, patriarchal, dysfunctional society where wealth bestows power; one in which women cannot determine their own fate, and one marked by religious and racial prejudice.” Hmm. This production, which opened Saturday night, May 20, runs through June 4, and is directed by award-winning actor Robert Cuccioli.
Perhaps this play is not often performed because modern playgoers (and producers) are uncomfortable with its blatant anti-Semitism. Such views persisted in England, of course, through the eras of Dickens, Disraeli, Holocaust denial, and may even be again on the rise. It’s talking about them that’s so uncomfortable. Cuccioli, the cast, and the theater deserve praise for not soft-pedaling the ugliness of racial hatred. Shylock (Andrew Weems) is as intransigent in his demands as his foes expect him to be.
The gist of the story, you may recall, is that prominent Venetian merchant Antonio (Brent Harris), loans his friend Bassanio (John Keabler) money so he can woo the estimable Portia (Melissa Miller). Convinced several of his ships will soon arrive and refill his coffers, Antonio borrows the needed sum from his old adversary, Shylock, and agrees to the whimsical idea that, if he cannot repay the debt, he’ll let the Jew take a pound of his flesh.
When Antonio’s ships are lost, Shylock invokes that clause. Portia, disguised as a learned young judge, argues the case to save Antonio (“The quality of mercy is not strain’d, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath”) , aided by her maidservant Nerissa (Rachel Towne), her pretended law clerk.
That part of the story has all the makings of tragedy, certainly high drama. The comedy comes from the suitors for Portia’s hand, made to choose among caskets of gold, silver, and lead, only one of which holds her portrait and her promise to marry. With great shows of manly confidence, they uniformly guess wrong, until Bassanio . . . you can guess the rest. Portia and Nerissa tease their men mercilessly, but not so frivolously as to form too great a contrast with the blacker heart of the play, the downfall of Shylock.
Weems, Harris, and Miller give especially strong and moving performances. However, the entire cast does an admirable job keeping the action going and creating interesting, compelling characters. They’re believably outraged at Shylock and charmed by Portia and Nerissa. In addition to those named, the cast includes Ademide Akintilo, Amaia Arana, Jeffrey M. Bender (his Prince of Arragon is priceless), Byron Clohessy, Ian Gould, Robert S. Gregory, Jay Leibowitz, Anthony Michael Martinez, Joe Penczak, and Tug Rice.
Production credits to Brian Ruggaber (excellent set design); Käri B. Bentson (sound), Michael Giannitti (lighting); Candida Nichols (lovely 1900-ish costumes); and Alison Cote (production stage manager).
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!