Shakespeare’s Great “Merchant” on Brookdale’s Great Lawn

One may question some of John Bukovec’s directorial decisions, but not his guts.  Selecting “The Merchant of Venice” for the Shakespeare Ensemble at Brookdale Community College was a bold move.

Officially a comedy, the play is known instead for its undercurrent of anti-Semitism, which was rife in Shakespeare’s London and which, as we know, periodically rears its ugly head these 400 years later.  That theme is so ingrained that the Jewish money-lender Shylock has become a symbol, and most discussion about the play centers on how he is portrayed.  (The role is a star-magnet.  Last season, NYC Shylocks included Al Pacino and F. Murray Abraham.)

Shylock (Michael Meinberg) carries a grudge against Antonio (Stephen Dobbins), the Christian merchant of the title, who has verbally abused him repeatedly on the street, which Shylock has borne “with a patient shrug.”  Nonetheless, Shylock loans Antonio 3,000 ducats on behalf of Bassanio (Rolando Hernandez).  Rather than charge interest, Shylock contracts for a pound of Antonio’s flesh should the loan default.

Sure enough, Antonio goes bust and Shylock, refusing re-payment from Bassanio, who has wed wealthy Portia (Samantha Artese), demands his pound of flesh.  Portia rescues Antonio by disguising herself as a judge and bedeviling Shylock out of his ‘bond,’ the pound of flesh.

Adding insult to injury, Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Evelyn Giovine) elopes with Lorenzo (Luke Nanney), taking with her a bunch of Shylock’s money and converting to Lorenzo’s Christian faith.  (Giovine and Nanney’s scenes are romantic. This Jessica is a delicate creature, sensitively acted; no wonder Lorenzo is smitten.)

An amusing co-plot concern’s Portia’s father’s decree that she can marry only the man who selects the one of three caskets (small chests) that contains her picture.  The overbearing Prince of Morocco (Antonio Johnson) picks the chest of gold, which “all that glisters is not,” and the preening Arragon (Daniel Escobar) picks the silver.  No luck.  But Bassanio, clued in by Portia, picks the leaden chest, which contains – wait for it – Portia’s likeness.

Despite odd-couple casting, the romance between Portia’s lady-in-waiting Nerissa (Mary Myers) and Bassanio’s friend Gratiano (Ashley Green) is made believable by the actors, and there’s comic relief by Shylock’s servant Launcelot (Anna Schoenenberger, who really is funny) and his father (Paul Brahney, spot-on as the blind old man).

Bukovec’s production de-emphasizes, one assumes intentionally, the Shylock controversy, side-stepping any debate (besides whether or not he should have) by having Shylock played straight, pretty much unemotional. Meinberg has the words down pat, as does every cast member, but there’s no sub-text.  The “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech is a throwaway, and Shylock accepts even his eventual ruin with a patient shrug.

As a result, Ms. Artese’s Portia doesn’t need to do much to out-emote Shylock.  Even with her blonde tresses covered, Artese doesn’t look or act mannish, but she delivers the “quality of mercy” speech nicely.  She’s fine in the romantic scenes, although a fist-pump or something when her bf finds her pic would enhance the character.

Jen Lucero’s excellent platform-leveled scenic design adds variety to the staging (the Portia/Nerissa scene on high is nifty), and Karen Resto’s handsome period costumes complement the characters well.

I was impressed with the cast’s discipline – not just in mastering the difficult phrasing (the play is 80% verse), but in their attention to what was going on around them.  That may seem a mild compliment, but when supporting actors Topher Friedel, John Kloby, Sofie Schildge, Sara Staple, Joe Sullivan, Angelika Violetta, Noelle Winters and Matt Sockel speak their lines as if they really matter, which they do, it says a lot about collective commitment.  Mr. Bukovec’s “Merchant” on Brookdale’s Great Lawn might be an imperfect take on the play, but academically it’s worth a semester’s credit.

You can see it (free) on the Great Law, accessible from parking lots 1 and 2 of Brookdale Community College, Lincroft, New Jersey,  Sat, July 14 at 7pm; Sun July 15 at 6pm; Thurs-Sat, July 19-21 at 7pm; and Sun July 22 at 6pm.  Patrons are encouraged to bring chairs or blankets, and it’s an ideal site for a pre-show picnic. (Soft drinks & snacks available)

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