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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
The Merchant of Venice

We never tried to make anything "nice", we resolved not to back off – either in our private interactions with each other, or taking on the prejudice and love with as much commitment as we could. — Tina Packer, director
Jonathan Epstein as the Merchant (photo: John Dolan)
It would be difficult to categorize the complex and controversial Merchant of Venice by any standard theatrical genre. Scenes of comedy and romance are interwoven with those of raw anti-Semitism, revenge and family discord.

It took a playwright of Shakespeare's skill to weave all these disparate elements into a flowing, comprehensible narrative. It definitely requires a director with an encompassing vision to give each part of the story its due.

Tina Packer, founder of Shakespeare & Company is the director of this summer's production — fourteen years after her last challenge of the play when the company was still performing at The Mount. She is joined in this production by her long time associate, Jonathan Epstein, who once again takes on the difficult role of Shylock. Before going further, let me say that as much as I admired the 2002 production (mosquitoes and all), this Packer/Epstein alliance exceeds that high bar.

The theater playing area has been reconfigured from a thrust stage to a "theatre in the oval." This brings the actors up close and personal.

The play begins with a burst of music and color. Out of semi-darkness emerges a band of revelers in exotic costumes –partying Venetian style. Among them are Antonio (John Hadden), and his friends Solanio (Peter Anderson) and Salarino (Cloteal L. Home) all still a bit drunk. Other friends, Bassanio (Shahr Isaac), Lorenzo (Deaon Griffin-Pressley) and Graziano (Jason Asprey) arrive and the play begins its complicated tale of the quest for money and marriage.

Scenic designer Kris Stone has painted a huge white (Christian) cross diagonally across the stage and covered it with words and images from other religions suggesting the conflict of doctrines that permeates the play. With an assist from lighting designer Matthew Miller, large glass globes rise and descend, often with bright colors suggesting the Arabian nights and other times as clear as stars in a night's sky.

The atmospheric original music by Daniel Levy and the finely detailed costumes by Tyler Kinney cast a rich glow on the proceedings. In the convoluted tale, Basssnio seeks the hand of the beautiful and financially well off Portia (Tamara Hickey) but needs funds to woo her well. Graziano is in love with Nerisssa (Bella Martin) Portia's lady-in-waiting, while Lorenzo (a Christian) has his heart set on Jessica (Kate Abbuzzese) a Jew and the daughter of the despised Shylock.

Antonio has financial problems — now anxiously waiting for word of successful voyages by a fleet of ships he has invested in. He needs 3,000 ducats and the only person in Venice with that kind of money to lend is Shylock, who has a long running grudge against Antonio who has mocked him as s Jew and spit on him. To add s little spice (and confusion) to the proceedings is an apparent homoerotic relationship between Antonio and Bassario. Their passionate kisses would put the frankest Hollywood "bromance" to shame.

Packer's expert guiding hand, long respected at this company, moves the play swiftly, blending deft comic touches and moments of compassion into the bitterness engendered by financial and religious animosity. It seems clear she wants the audience to recognize one truth about hate; that there are two sides to every conflict even if Shylock's demand for his "pound of flesh" seems inhumanly cruel. The work of the entire cast is most commendable. There were, however, times when passion forced some voices into a harsh shrillness.

I especially enjoyed the beauty-and-brains of Hickey's Portia, the vulnerability of Hadden's Antonio, Martin's spunky take on Nerissa and both Issac and Asprey'sometimes gruff and calculating wooing. Big laughs are provoked by Eric Avari as two silly foreign kings come to try their luck at solving the riddle of the three caskets, and by Brazzle's frisky Launcelot.

But it all comes back to Epstein's moving portrait, all the more poignant witnessed up close. I remember being very impressed by his 2002 performance which was seen at a fair distance - the action taking place among the tall trees on the grounds of The Mount. Was that the difference? Or had the actor taken a new slant on the part. Then I realized that the Shylock of 2002 had probably been in a time warp enduring the hate and scorn of anti-Semites for the past fourteen years. Like death and taxes, prejudice never seems to leave the human landscape.

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The Merchant of Venice
Director: Tina Packer
Associate Director: Elizbeth Aspenlieder
Assistant directors: Noa Egozi, Raphael Massie
Cast: Jonathan Epstein (Shylock), Tamara Hickey (Portia), Jason Asprey (Graziano), Shahar Isaac (Bassanio), Kate Abbruzzese (Jessica), Bella Merlin (Nerissa), John Hadden (Antonio), Deaon Griffin-Pressley (Lorenzo), Peter Andersen (Solonio), Thomas Brazzle (Launcelot), Cloteal L. Horne (Salarino ), Dylan Wittrock (Salerio), Erick Avari (Duke, Prince of Morocco, Prince of Aragon), Michael Fuchs (Old Gobbo/Tubal/ Carsini).
Set design: Kris Stone
Costume design: Tyler Kinney
Composer/sound design: Daniel Levy
Lighting design: Matthew Miller
Choreographer/movement director: Kristin Wold
Dance Captain: Bella Merlin
Fight choreographer: Jonathan Croy
Voice coach: Gwendolyn Schwinke
Stage Manager: Laura Kathryne Gomez
Through August 21.
Tina Packer Playhouse atShakespeare & Company 70 Kimble Street Lenox, Massachusetts
Running time: Approximately three hours including one 15-minute intermission.
For tickets call (413) 637-3353, or p online at
Reviewed by Chesley Plemmons at the opening, Sunday July 10th.

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