The wise, steadfast Portia has the largest role in “The Merchant of Venice.” The title refers to Antonio, who’s in danger of losing a pound of flesh if he can’t repay a debt. Yet what we remember is the Jew.
Though Shylock the moneylender has only five scenes, he dominates the show and is one of the thorniest problems in Shakespeare. Is he a relentless villain? A wronged member of a religious minority, revenging himself on people who mock and spit at him? Or is he something in between?
Christian Casper depicts him as an angry man seeking “justice” according to his inflexible code, and that suits the tone of the production by Collaborative Arts Theatre.
In this Venetian society, relationships are hemmed in by bonds and covenants, and love runs a distant second place. (The fraternal friendship of Antonio and Bassanio is the deepest emotion to be found.)
The first thing suitor Bassanio says about Portia is that she’s “richly left” by a dead father, who insisted she accept the first husband who can solve a riddle. The Christian Lorenzo elopes with the Jew’s daughter at least partly because she steals her father’s precious stones. What wonder that Shylock sees all of life as a business deal? His hatred for Christians merely adds bitter spice to his natural behavior.
Co-directors Elise Wilkinson and Joe Copley are mindful that “Merchant” ranks with the Bard’s comedies. They and the actors draw all the humor from bumbling servants, women disguised as men, tokens pledged and lost and reclaimed.
Yet laughter can ring hollow, as it sometimes does in “The Taming of the Shrew.” A few folks in the McGlohon audience snickered at Shylock’s degradation in court; others found the humiliation of this cruel man painful to watch, however “just” it may be.
Casper plays him matter-of-factly, seeking neither sympathy nor sneers from us. He lets the famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech come out bluntly, almost tossing a line or two away, as if he can’t expect these benighted Christians to understand him.
He fits well into the emotional mix created by the exuberant Bassanio of Tim Sailer, the merry and mischievous Portia of Brandi Nicole Feemster and the gravely melancholic Antonio of Chad Calvert. (For once, Antonio’s hide seemed to be worth saving.)
Erin Dougherty’s elegant, unshowy costumes are excellent, and the atmosphere begins with a joke as we walk in: That recorded tenor crooning Neapolitan songs sounds like Richard Tucker, the Jewish cantor who became more Italianate than his Italian competitors at the old Metropolitan Opera.