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A CurtainUp Review
The Merchant of Venice
You probably know the story — a moral allegory that revolves around the moneylender Shylock. But you may never hear it retold as richly as in this streamlined version. Mr. Serero has whittled down the dramatis personae to seven characters — Shylock, Antonio, Portia, Bassanio, the Prince of Morocco, Sallerio, and the Duke — and boldly cuts acres out of Shakespeare's text. Sound like butchery of the Bard? Not at all. You get the essential story and nearly all the famous speeches. In fact, this condensation has more spirit and verve than many of the longer interpretations that I have seen in recent years. And, clocking in at 90 minutes, with no intermission, it's a production that is family friendly.
Enough on the production's length. What makes this Merchant sing, quite literally, is Serero, who plays Shylock and sings most of the Ladino songs that have been interlarded into the play.
The piece opens with a prelude. Serero's Merchant enters the performing space like a Chorus figure. He is attired in a traditional Jewish shawl and yarmulke and with face front to the audience, simply sings a Ladino song.
Serero, a baritone who has performed in prestigious venues across the world (including a performance in front of the Eiffel Tower for 18,000 people), is pitch-perfect here and deftly sets the tone for what follows. There are no English subtitles to translate the Ladino lyrics, but the pristine quality of Serero's voice and the sheer conviction of his delivery speak volumes.
If you aren't familiar with the Sephardic tradition or Ladino songs, here's a mini-history lesson: Ladino was the language of Sephardic Spanish Jews before they were forced out of Spain following the Inquisition in 1492. The Ladino language continues to be a very vital part of the Sephardic Jews heritage and flows naturally into their lyrical songs.
The enthusiastic young acting ensemble brings wonderful chemistry to the stage. And though they vary in their ability to handle Shakespeare's verse, they all manage to wrap their mouths around the language and deliver the goods.
Dina Desmone is well-cast in the key role of Portia, the rich heiress of Belmont. But Serero is the real stage-taker here. He inhabits Shylock with a genuine Jewish sensibility and delivers the famous speech "Hath not a Jew eyes?" with deep sincerity. Later on, in the trial scene, he unapologetically chews the scenery when he whets his knives in anticipation of getting his "pound of flesh" from the merchant Antonio. However, Serero's Shylock never topples over into caricature. Because he seamlessly straddles the acting and singing, the sacred Ladino song inform as well as soften this Shylock.
This is no stuffy production! While the Sephardic tradition definitely comes to the fore Serero has taken much creative license with Shakespeare's language and tossed in many American colloquialisms. "God, he's so handsome!" says Portia, as she eyes Bassanio when he's musing over what casket to choose to win her hand in marriage in the lottery scene. While the romantic ad libbing is sweet, the real zinger is when Jerry Springer (one of several roles played by Sean Dube) makes a guest appearance as news anchor at the trial scene. Springer becomes the Johnny-on-the-spot, reporting on Portia and Bassanio's first love spat. Okay, having Springer plunked in with the dramatis personae is gimmicky, but it does add American flavor and real levity to this adaptation.
Serero, and the entire cast, deserve kudos for this fresh interpretation. With the addition of pianist Noriko Sunamoto on stage, this is a Merchant that sings in a Sephardic key but can speak to everybody.