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A CurtainUp Review
The Merchant of Venice
At Shakespeare Theatre's Harman Hall, director Ethan McSweeny substitutes the Manhattan neighborhoods of Little Italy and the Lower East Side for Venice, both places of commerce. This Merchant. . . opens with music from the Jazz Age. Steam rises from an (off stage) train and men wearing fedoras cocked just so, look as though they are refugees from Guys and Dolls. They are ready to do business, but their playwright is about to teach them the serious lesson that "all that glisters is not gold."
Portia (Julia Coffey), a beautiful unmarried young woman of considerable wealth, who is abiding by her late father's wishes in that her husband must first be tested by his choice of one of three caskets. In a delightfully strong performance, the diminutive Coffey makes her entrance in riding gear. She exudes confidence and charm, fears nothing, and no one as she almost gallops down the staircase that dominates Andrew Lieberman's impressive set. This Portia is at ease no matter who or what comes her way. She is a coquette one minute and, when disguised as a lawyer, high-minded and strong willed.
Her suitors — the Prince of Morocco (Carl Cofield) and the Prince of Arragon (Vaneik Echeverria)— are farcical but not funny. Drew Cortese as Bassanio shows finesse in his pursuit of Portia; Derek Smith makes a fine Antonio.
Mark Nelson's Shylock is quite unlike any I have ever seen. Better, perhaps, than the others because he makes this complex character so human. His speech pattern is Lower East Side when that part of town was nothing more than tenements for huddled masses of Jewish immigrants. His demeanor is more than sympathetic. And yet, as he sharpens his knife, to get his "pound of flesh" in the manner of a barber, he is to be feared greatly.
In spite of a weak supporting cast, unflattering costumes (by Jennifer Moeller) and a script that demands considerable suspension of disbelief, particularly when Portia does not recognize her betrothed, this Merchant of Venice is highly entertaining and that's what makes it new on the Rialto.
Eitor:s Note: As Susan points out, The Merchant has indeed cropped up frequently in recent years. If you check out ou Shakespeare Page you'll see that this is Curtainup's 9th review of this play.
Book of Mormon -CD
Our review of the show
Slings & Arrows-the complete set
You don't have to be a Shakespeare aficionado to love all 21 episodes of this hilarious and moving Canadian TV series about a fictional Shakespeare Company