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Trinity’s delicately balanced Merchant of Venice

The light and the dark
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  February 15, 2012

LET’S MAKE A DEAL Berenson and Wilson, Jr.

The Merchant of Venice gives modern audiences a lot to think and talk about — including, we can forget, a surprising amount of comedy. But the main concern is it being such a head-shaking case study of the era's anti-Semitism.

Trinity Repertory Company is giving a stunningly impressive rendition of the Shakespeare classic, under the direction of Curt Columbus, in the upstairs theater through March 4.

Columbus argues in his program notes that "the play would be anti-Semitic if his action was inherent in his nature as a Jew," that his trying to kill an innocent enemy was human rather than ethnic. Trouble is, after such murderous revenge the townsfolk would not likely hiss "dirty human!"

To begin, title character Antonio (Joe Wilson, Jr.), a shipping merchant in Venice, is asked by his good friend Bassanio (Stephen Thorne) for the loan of 3000 ducats to travel as a suitor for the hand of the wealthy Portia (Mary C. Davis). Having a cash flow problem, Antonio borrows the money from moneylender Shylock (Stephen Berenson). The Jew says he will charge no interest for the loan, as a gesture to spark a friendship with Antonio, who has been known to spit in his face for being a usurer. Instead, they will make a "merry bond," the forfeit for non-payment being a pound of the man's flesh, suggesting that they would all have a good laugh instead of such a bloodbath.

Surprise, surprise. Antonio's ships are late returning with their wealth, so forfeit it is. Shylock raises his knife in homicidal glee and . . . well, let's just say that legal folderol stops the surgery.

This play was initially grouped exclusively with Shakespeare's comedies, and this production certainly plays up comic opportunities. For a short scene we see Fred Sullivan, Jr. as Tubal, Shylock's Jewish friend, but it is as Gratiano, the talkative friend of Antonio and Bassanio, that he gets to pull out all his stops, cajoling, confiding, cavorting any chance he gets. As the Prince of Aragon, one of Portia's suitors, he even gets to put on a lisping Castilian accent and be haughty and fawning at the same time. Although Wilson's Antonio maintains a confident dignity, the director gave him a chance to ham it up as the Prince of Morocco, another suitor, snapping the reins on obsequious charm and talking funny to boot.

A comedy in Shakespeare invariably means romantic comedy, so love relationships prompt lots of laughter as well as romantic sighs among the susceptible. Portia, dutiful girl she is, has to abide by the command of her late father and marry whomever first correctly selects from among three chests. She is all but visibly biting her nails as the above two foolish princes choose the gold one and the silver one, revealing character flaws in their reasoning. But handsome Bassanio (whew!) chooses the lead chest, to Portia's relief, though it warns of risking hazard. Finally, a prospective husband who knows what he's getting into.

Of course, for additional smiles there has to be a gender switch. After Portia and Bassanio marry, she soon dresses up as a young male lawyer, accompanied by her similarly outfitted maidservant Nerissa (Rachael Warren). They return to Venice where their men have rushed because Antonio, his ships late, has to make his ill-advised forfeit payment.

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Related: Commonwealth Shakespeare Company takes on Coriolanus, Winter theatre preview: From the Bard to Becky Shaw, Review: Trinity Rep’s Crucible is potent, More more >
  Topics: Theater , Stephen Thorne, Joe Wilson, Stephen Berenson,  More more >
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