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June 29, 2011

A REVIEW: Dynamite “Merchant of Venice”

Roy Meachum

Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre officially debuted Ethan McSweeny’s dynamite version of “The Merchant of Venice” on Sunday. STC Artistic Director Michael Kahn produced it last in 1999. The program notes that of all the Bard’s plays the work takes second seat only to “Hamlet.” I had never seen it before.


Over the years, “Hamlet” I heard in Russian, German and the liquid French of Jean-Louis Barrault; his morose prince of Denmark couldn’t possibly be more Gallic. And in English innumerable times with American, English and Welsh accents; a New York version starred Richard Burton with Canadian Hugh Marlowe as Polonius, the lord chamberlain. John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier, both real-life knights, took temporary promotion for their separate productions.


My freshman year – the only one out of boarding school – a nun taught my class Shylock’s abominable behavior, stressing that Jews were not to be trusted. Its gross anti-Semitism kept the book closed to me. My curiosity about “The Merchant of Venice” on-stage was not fulfilled before the Sidney Harmon Hall last Sunday. Thanks to Ethan McSweeny, it was well worth the wait. His breath-taking production gives a lie to Hamlet’s “The play’s the thing…”


The players form a single element in the STC’s striking kaleidoscope. The director must be admired for assembling the team of Jennifer Moeller for costumes, Marcus Doshi lighting, choreographer Karma Camp and composer Steven Cahill, who also designed the production’s sounds. But most of all, for Andrew Lieberman, who transformed the stage into a truly magical hall where I have been impressed before.


Introduced to stagecraft by my “Uncle” Pat, who was a stagehand in New Orleans’ WPA theater, at the age of eight, all through my Washington reviewer years and after moving to Frederick, sets were painted panels of canvas, moved and removed. Until Michael Kahn and his STC, that’s what I observed from my critic’s seat. That was eight years ago. But Andrew Lieberman bests all rivals. The “Merchant’s” presents many venues where there are many shows going on. I remember constant activity away from center stage: men drinking coffee in a café and women walking back and forth. Director McSweeny has stairs and pedestals at several levels, including roofs of buildings and balconies, which I suspect resulted from close collaboration.


According to publicity, Steve Cahill’s music is supposed to evoke the late 1920s. But coming along at that time I know that the composer’s orchestrations, relying heavily on the clarinet, really represent sounds several years later. After Wall Street’s Black Friday, dresses grew longer and hair-bobs disappeared, as the STC production depicts. Ethan McSweeny created a mood between the World Wars; I know because I was there.


The players really come into their own after the single intermission. Having set the conditions and putative romances in the extended first act, the plot cashes in. The deal was set between the moneylender Shylock and the Venetian businessman Antonio, maybe 30 or 40 minutes after the curtain goes up. The loving couples are all lined up before all the lights blacken the first time. Drew Cortese’s Bassanio has already been selected by grande dame Portia, portrayed by Julia Coffey.


The second act resolves everything satisfactorily for everybody except Mark Nelson’s Shylock. As I said, I’ve only read, not witnessed, the anti-Semitic fury dropped on Venice’s leading Jew; it was horrible to see and hear, really breathtaking. For the chutzpah of questioning the Christian establishment that continues to revile and literally spit on him, Shylock is subject to degrading treatment, including the official order to renounce his faith and be baptized.


In the climactic trial scene, Julia Coffey is no less than magnificent, performing as a male attorney with authority and conviction. Mark Nelson endows integrity and dignity to the hapless Jew. The existential problem with the work is it doesn’t end after the trial; it goes on to become the comedy of manners the playwright intended. Relying on erratic memory “The Merchant of Venice” reeks with hatred, the laughter heard “many a time and oft” – to quote Shylock’s most frequently cited speech – startles!


The laughter is well-earned in this production. Drew Cortese approaches Portia’s Bassanio with almost incredible intelligence and clarity. The entire cast acts with credit for the director. On opening night I tried to congratulate Michael Kahn, who properly deferred to Ethan McSweeny, who accepted praise graciously.


Not for the play but for the production, the world and all its mice should march on Washington’s Chinatown. The Sydney Harmon Hall nestles nearby. Director McSweeny’s fantastic “The Merchant of Venice” goes up in a puff of smoke on Sunday, July 24.


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