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The Play's the Thing

Mobtown Players' Merchant Can't Overcome Dated Theme

John Sadowsky (left) and Carlos del Valle in Mobtown Players' The Merchant of Venice

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 11/15/2000

The Merchant of Venice

William Shakespeare

Shakespeare was a fantastic writer. There's no disputing that. But that isn't the only reason the Bard's work has lasted so long. Most of his plays have simple, timeless themes: ambition (Macbeth), jealousy (Othello), love (As You Like It, among many others). Of course, there are a few exceptions. Thematically speaking some of the Bard's plays have not dated well. The Taming of the Shrew's lesson that a man must break a woman's will completely in order to make her a decent wife seems grossly misogynistic today, and The Merchant of Venice's blatant anti-Semitism cannot possibly sit well in a society that has seen the horrors of the Holocaust. Any staging must deal with that overriding question: How can an audience enjoy Merchant's comedy and intrigue when the play is so terribly bigoted? Many troupes avoid the issue by avoiding the play; some reconceptualize it in an effort to address the anti-Semitism; and others play it straight, hoping the audience will gloss over Merchant's disturbing elements because, well, it's Shakespeare.

Unfortunately, the Mobtown Players take this last approach. Their production, while full of fine acting, ignores the problem altogether, rendering the play's sympathetic characters thoroughly unsympathetic because of their irrational hate and making all the characters' motivations downright confusing.

For the uninitiated: The Merchant of Venice is about two friends, Antonio (Noel Schively) and Bassanio (Carlos del Valle). Bassanio needs to borrow some money from the wealthy Antonio in order to woo the woman he loves, who happens to be rich enough to absolve all his previous debts. Antonio doesn't have the money at the moment because it is tied up in his ventures overseas, so he borrows the money from Shylock (John Sadowsky), a Jewish moneylender whom Antonio has often slandered. Unfortunately, his ventures fail, and he is forced to forfeit the bond and risk paying the penalty Shylock stipulated, a pound of flesh. Meanwhile, Bassanio has gone to the woman of his dreams, Portia (Sharol Buck), whom he can only win by solving a riddle posed by her father. And Shylock's daughter, Jessica (Lydia Real), has run away with a Christian, denouncing her father and her faith in the name of love.

Director Ryan Whinnem intersperses the first and second acts with excerpts from the third-act courtroom battle between Antonio and Shylock, creating an interesting juxtaposition between the early scenes and what is to come. This approach also heightens the tension of the court scene, when we see it in its entirety later. Lines heard earlier resonate powerfully in the full scene, and remind the audience of the events that have led the characters to this point. It's too bad that Whinnem didn't employ such novel and unifying techniques in the rest of his direction.

Despite a passionate performance by Sadowsky, Shylock never becomes a cohesive character; his motivation is murky, despite the fact that the play gives him more than ample reasons for being so bent on vengeance.

Similarly, Jessica's relationship with her love, Lorenzo (Michael Papa) never gels. Lorenzo seems a greedy cad, making Jessica appear foolish rather than romantic. Schively is strong and pleasantly understated as Antonio, Buck's Portia is tough and smart, and Valle gives Bassanio gives the character an appealing earnestness. The supporting cast also does well. Annmarie Amlick's Nerissa is amusing, Brian Irons brings a lot to his small role as Lancelot, Jessica's servant, and Valarie Perez Schere, who stole the show in the Mobtown Players' production of Comedy of Errors, once again proves her formidable if woefully underused comedic talents, this time in the role of Salario. With so many fine actors pleading its case, it's a shame this Merchant is too awkward and inconsistent to make the sale.

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