The true genius in the best of William Shakespeare's plays is his ability to challenge the audience's expectations. The prejudices of the sixteenth century are ever present, but the stereotypes are frequently deepened. And thus it is with The Merchant of Venice which features as its villain the usurious Jewish moneylender, Shylock. In the brilliant "I am a Jew" speech and the despairing rant over his daughter's betrayal, Shakespeare gives Shylock a more rounded character that helps transcend the stereotype of the money-grubbing man seeking revenge. Add to that the rich characterization provided by an actor at the top of his game and you have a compelling reason to journey to the Shenandoah Valley to seek out the high qualities of this production presented by the American Shakespeare Center.
The melancholy merchant of the title, Antonio (Rene Thornton, Jr.) agrees to help fund his best friend Bassanio's (Gregory Jon Phelps) attempt to win the wealthy heiress of Belmont Portia's (Tracie Thomason) hand in marriage. Antonio's own money is unavailable as his merchant ships are at sea. He agrees to borrow the money from Shylock (James Keegan), a wealthy Jewish moneylender. Shylock, who has been harassed and suffered humiliation at the hand of Antonio and the other Christian merchants of Venice agrees to lend the money on one condition. If Antonio does not meet the deadline for repaying the loan, he must forfeit one pound of his flesh. Antonio agrees as he does not believe that he will have any trouble repaying the funds. Bassanio travels to Belmont where Portia is restricted by the terms of her father's will in how she chooses a husband. Any suitor must select from three caskets, gold, silver, and lead. If they choose correctly they will marry Portia. If not, they cannot marry any other woman. Meanwhile, Shylock's daughter, Jessica (Abbi Hawk) elopes with the Christian Lorenzo (Chris Johnston), taking with her a small fortune. This additional betrayal hardens Shylock's heart, so when Antonio's ships fail to come in and he must forfeit on the loan, his life is in danger. In the midst of happy marriages, the unhappy trial for Antonio's life looms large. Judgments will be made with the aid of a surprising scholar of the law.
This is a play that can challenge the 21st century audience. For not only does it feature as its villain a Jewish character bent on revenge for the wrongs that the Christian merchant of the title has done unto him, it also features uncomfortable behavior by the majority Christian characters towards the Jewish and African ones. The American Shakespeare Center has not excised the more uncomfortable language spoken by the heroes and heroines of the play. Under the direction of Artistic Director Jim Warren, the language is not emphasized, but is matter-of-factly delivered. Thus when Portia proclaims that she hopes not only that the Prince of Morocco fail in his attempt to marry her, but "let all of his complexion choose me so," she is declaring that she hopes that anyone of African descent not win her. Yet, she delivers it not with malice, but as if it were the most natural thing for her character to say. It is a credit to Ms. Thomason that she keeps Portia's attitude light and merry throughout the discussions of her various suitors.
For Ms. Thomason is a delightful, playful Portia. The Blackfriars' stage encourages audience interaction. In the scene in which Portia and her gentlewoman, Nerissa (Allison Glenzer) discuss the various suitors who have failed in their quest to marry her, Ms. Thomason and Ms Glenzer have a great deal of fun choosing audience members to illustrate their playful banter. Ms. Thomason's Portia has mirth-filled charm throughout Portia's journey from object of love to deliverer of justice.
Ronald Peet and Chris Johnston bring comic delight to the roles of Portia's suitors, the Princes of Morocco and Arragon. Mr. Peet seems to be channeling a little bit of Geoffrey Holder (cola nut, un-cola nut) and Mr. Johnston seems to have taken the brilliant costuming of designer Jenny McNee with zest and has managed to create the embodiment of farce.
Rene Thornton, Jr. has a quiet strength as the melancholy Antonio, the truest friend to Bassanio despite his lack of ready cash and has poignant quiet resolve at his trial where he is willing to accept his fate. Yet, there is also the layer of menace in his contempt for Shylock and when Antonio determines the final penalty of the trial, the electricity within that scene among the leading participants of Portia, Antonio and Shylock leaves the audience breathless, riveted and ultimately unnerved by the proceedings.
To achieve that outcome, it is on the shoulders of the outstanding performance of James Keegan as Shylock. Shylock is not an easy character. With the modern mindset it is easy to play up the discrimination towards the character playing Shylock more as victim and less as the villain that Shakespeare wrote. Make no mistake, Shylock is the villain of the play. Yet, Mr. Keegan shades his performance with steely nerve as he subjects himself to Christian ridicule and with pure heartbreak at his daughter's betrayal. The speech which Shylock gives seeming to be more upset by the loss of his money and jewels instead of his daughter comes across as the agony of a father knowing that his daughter's choice to abandon her faith means the end of their relationship. During the trial you witness the release of the weight of all of the wrongs Shylock has suffered. While you cannot wish for Shylock to exact his bloody revenge on Antonio you do understand his desire for it and that is the brilliance of Mr. Keegan's performance. The uneasy end to the trial and the silent reaction of the audience would not be possible without Mr. Keegan's riveting performance.
William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is being performed in repertory with The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Cymbeline, King John and James Goldman's The Lion in Winter through November 23, 2012. For tickets and other performance information please visit www.americanshakespearecenter.com