Shakespeare’s “The Merchant Of Venice” may not be one of the Bard’s official “problem plays,” but it’s certainly been problematic over the centuries.
The main complaint – anti-Semitism – has undoubtedly reduced the number of productions worldwide. That the Nazis used it for propaganda did not help.
But the Old Globe is presenting “The Merchant Of Venice” at The Old Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Theatre through Sept. 28 as part of the theater’s annual Shakespeare Festival, with Adrian Noble at the helm.
The play’s central plot revolves around an agreement made by the titular merchant Antonio (Donald Carrier) and Jewish moneylender Shylock (Miles Anderson) on behalf of Antonio’s friend Bassanio (Lucas Hall).
It seems that Bassanio is wooing the beautiful heiress Portia (Krystel Lucas) and needs some ducats to prove worthy of the lady. Antonio’s cash is tied up in his shipping business at the moment, so he asks Shylock for a loan.
The play portrays Jews as they were considered in Shakespeare’s time (the late 16th century) – a breed apart, largely hated, forced into separate housing and allowed very few professions, moneylending being the major one.
Shylock – who has put up with mistreatment for years – sees a chance to get back at those who have tormented him over the years, and sets an unusual bond for the loan: a pound of Antonio’s flesh, taken from “wherever it may please me.”
Noble has moved the action to the second half of the 19th century, when anti-Semitism in Europe was less institutionalized yet still virulent. Anderson plays Shylock not as victim nor as villain (the usual options), but as a businessman who wants his due. When Antonio defaults on the loan, Shylock wants that pound of flesh.
Shylock’s schadenfreude is short-lived when he is outwitted by “barrister” Balthazar (Portia in disguise), who first argues that mercy should trump the cold words on a contract. When Shylock is not convinced, “Balthazar” pulls out the legalist card, allowing that Shylock may indeed take the pound of flesh, but will forfeit all his property if he spills one drop of blood, which is not specifically allowed in the contract. Shylock’s stubbornness does him in.
Meanwhile, Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Winslow Corbett) does something even more difficult for her father to swallow: she elopes with the Christian Lorenzo (Adam Gerber).
Around these central themes, Shakespeare arranges a typical assortment of lovers, overacting comic characters (Shakespeare considered the play a comedy) and fops.
One seems downright contemporary: John Lavelle, who seems to be channeling Jim Carrey as Shylock’s servant Lancelot Gobbo.
Likewise, I saw a lot of Nathan Lane in Triney Sandoval’s portrayal of Antonio’s friend Gratiano.
And Portia’s parade of unsuitable suitors (her father’s will specifies that she will marry the man who picks the correct box out of three) provide over-the-top amusement as well.
But this is Shylock’s play, and Anderson handles the part brilliantly. Here is a man wronged by prejudice, brought down not just by the law and his own intransigence but by a daughter with more advanced notions of love and tolerance than her father shows.
Ralph Funicello’s set has many moving parts and works well overall, but the use of what looks like black plastic for the canals of Venice is a bit distracting.
The other design elements are exemplary: Deirdre Clancy’s costumes, Alan Burrett’s lighting, Dan Moses Schreier’s sound and George Yé’s fight direction.
“The Merchant of Venice” is a difficult play, but Noble (who here directs his last play as artistic director of the summer Shakespeare festival) and this company give us a fine interpretation of it.
“The Merchant Of Venice” plays through Sept. 28 in repertory with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead” at The Old Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.
Tuesday through Sunday at 8 pm through July. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday at 7 pm; Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm in September. Check website (theoldglobe.org) for specific dates and plays.
Tickets: (619) 234-5623 or HERE.
To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.