“The Merchant of Venice,” considered a comedy by Shakespearean scholars essentially because no one dies at the end, is a story for our times. Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has chosen this magnetic and monumentally-themed play as its season opener to show us that there is truly nothing new under the Sun. It’s helmed by long-time Company member and eminent Shakespearean Robert Cuccioli, so prepare yourself for an evening that’s bigger than “Game of Thrones.”
Antonio (Brent Harris) is a wealthy merchant with his finger in a great many of pies. The only thing that travels faster than his ships is gossip. He does a solid turn for his buddy Bassanio (John Keabler) by loaning him some money against his futures, even with the understanding that boats don’t always return. Nevertheless, they strike a deal with Shylock (Andrew Weems) who is noted to drive a hard bargain. Yet Antonio, in his hubris, offers something that no one should ever offer–a pound of flesh from the area closest to his heart, to guarantee the loan, a measure of his filial loyalty to Bassanio.
Bassanio is a suitor to the wealthy heiress, Portia (Melissa Miller). Greater than her wealth, greater even than her beauty, is her intellect. And as smitten as this kitten is with her man, she’s razor sharp in the keen quality of her vision. Her wisdom stands all in good stead, ere the end of the play.
Is this a comedy? There is certainly comedic intent, especially with the wit of Jeffrey M. Bender as Launcelot Gobbo, who makes a Rubik’s cube of his native tongue, as well as his physical derring-do. There are many comedic moments, as with Ademide Akintilo’s Prince of Morocco, as he vies for Portia’s love. Yet, this play is most remembered for Shylock’s eloquence on how we are all alike, in “Hath not a Jew eyes,” where Weems seethes and swirls like smoke from a fire that has been carefully tended in smoldering red coals. Fitting complement to this is Portia’s “quality of mercy” speech, in her brilliant courtroom masque, where she provides adjudication, lauded by Antonio’s friends, and whose logic is irrefutable, even by the beaten Shylock. Miller shimmers as she weaves the argument that ultimately saves Antonio’s life. This is not good acting, this is great acting.
From Michael Giannitti’s subtle lighting effects, including the Maxfield Parrish glow, to Candida Nichol’s costumes to Käri Berntson’s deft sound designs, you are in for something special. From Brian Ruggaber’s revolving stage to the Industrial Revolution’s cycle of boom-and-bust, there is a soft sense of alternate reality permeating the whole, like jasmine flavors and evening.
Tectonic plates shift, while you contemplate how little the world has changed since the First Folio. It would be easy to discuss, then dismiss the play, as being anti-Semitic. Yet the thread that runs through this play, “Othello,” “Macbeth,” and more, is how we treat “others.” Those who are not like “us,” whomever “us” is, are treated with less–less respect, fewer resources and rights. STNJ and Cuccioli have given us a great deal to consider. I want to see this show again before the end of the run, as I feel greater revelations tingling on the bleeding edge of my memory.
Timely, pithy, and heart-rending, this play digs deep. Get your tickets now at www.shakespearenj.org
. June 4 is the end of run and this production is brilliant.