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A CurtainUp NJ Review
The Merchant of Venice
God made him, and therefore let him pass for a man. — Portia
Andrew Weems and Amaia Arana (photo credit: Jerry Dalia)
Friendship, love, revenge, and overt anti-Semitism are tenuously blended in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice . The good news is that they are considered by director Robert Cuccioli in a rewarding, richly designed production for the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.

This is the first production of Merchant at STNJ in seventeen years and it is excellent. As the title infers, the action takes place in Venice but in this staging it is moved forward in time to 1910. In his director's notes Cuccioli states, "I have set this production in Venice in the early 1900's. . . . The Industrial Revolution was well underway and lots of people were making loads of money. . . all mirrored in our own society today."

The unit two-level setting imaginatively designed by Brian Ruggaber is an attention grabber with its curved borders and carved balustrades. The atmospheric lighting designed by Michael Giannitti is often stunning. The costumes designed by Candida Nichols are period-perfect knock-outs. The use of bits of classical music as segues between scenes is a nice touch.

My commentary on technical matters is not meant to divert me or you from knowing that this is, and always has been, a hard to laugh at comedy. But laughs do come easily, most notably in the scene between the wonderfully goofy Launcelot Gobbo (Jeffrey M. Bender) and his elderly almost blind cane-wielding father (Robert S. Gregory. )

It certainly is no longer news that there will always be with us the eternal enigma surrounding the play regarding Shakespeare's true intention and purpose, as Cuccioli may also be eternally linked to his award-winning role in Jekyll & Hyde. With his director's hat on, he has linked Shakespeare's interlocking plots with commendable assurance of purpose and notable ease. Nice to report that Shakespeare's prose comes trippingly off all tongues. Though the performances of Andrew Weems as Shylock and Melissa Miler as Portia are most agreeable. All the players seem to have responded to Cuccioli's direct and always accessible approach.

Notwithstanding a terrific Weems's formidably indulged embrace of Shylock's ethnicity, it is the acid-tinged rage that propels this despised usurer's speeches and keeps us enthralled. This, along with his perverse sense of humor. It is up to Shylock, with his sharp-tongued responses to the extremely bigoted and racist society in which he lives, to prove that he is a man capable of carving a pound of flesh from his debtor Antonio (good sturdy performance by Brent Harris.)

What does one really take away from this famously discomforting situation. The characters as written seem only created to inflate the plot. Are we supposed to be dismayed or made happy by the callous and calculated way that Shylock's daughter, Jessica (Amaia Arana) escapes from the watchful eye of her overly protective father? It's not easy to be sympathetic toward Jessica or Lorenzo (Anthony Michael Martinez) for whom she converts.

Melissa Miller is untypically delightful as Portia, the very rich and very smart lady who not only figures out how to catch the husband of her choice but also how to give an effective speech. She looks smart as the learnedlawyer and gives it a persuasive and unpretentious ring of honesty to Portia's famous quality of mercy speech.

John Keabler provides a nice, self-effacing presence as Portia's penniless suitor. That he ultimately wins her hand in the face of the comical wooing of her by two notably silly suitors is a relief. And so, this usually unpleasant comedy is made pleasant and entertaining by Cuccioli and company.

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The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare Directed by Robert Cuccioli
Cast: Brent Harris (Antonio), Tug Rice (Salerio), Jay Leibowitz (Solanio), Byron Cloches' (Waiter, Leonardo, Stephano, Antonio's Messenger), John Keabler (Bassanio), Ian Gould (Gratiano), Anthony Michael Martinez (Lorenzo), Melissa Miller (Portia), Rachel Towne (Nerissa), Joe Penczak (Balthazar, Tubal), Andrew Weems (Shylock) Ademide Akintilo (Prince of Morocco, Jailor), Jeffrey M. Bender (Launcelot Gobbo, Prince of Arragon)), Byron Clohessy (Leonardo), Robert S. Gregory (Old Gobbo, Duke of Venice), Amaia Arana (Jessica)
Scenic Designer: Brian Ruggaber
Costume Designer: Candida Nichols
Lighting Designer: Michael Giannitti
Sound Designer: Kari B. Berntson
Production Stage Manager: Alison Cote
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes including intermission
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, The F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, N.J. (on the campus of Drew University) (973) 408-5600
Sun, Tues, Wed. at 7:30pm; Thurs, Fri, Sat. at 8 pm; Sat. and Sun. mats at 2 pm.
From 05/17/17 Opened 05/20/17 Ends 06/04/17
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 05/20/17

NJ Theaters
NJ Theatre Alliance
Discount Tix Information

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