Seldom have humor and menace combined in such a potent brew as Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice," a tale of improbable comedy in the face of fierce prejudice that opened the 36th season of Shakespeare in Delaware Park in grand fashion on Thursday night.
And this production, fraught with tension and loaded with deeply felt performances, achieved a rare immediacy that kept audience members on the hill utterly rapt across the play's very fast three hours. This is no small task, as anyone who has slogged through lesser productions of outdoor Shakespeare can readily attest.
Director Brian Cavanagh has taken the straightforward approach. There's no daring directorial concept at work here, just a sense that the cast was given enough time and space to grow comfortable in their characters' often unsavory skins and to pay deep attention to the emotional thrust behind the play's utterly spellbinding language.
The plot, for the uninitiated, goes like this:
The affable but poor Bassanio (Adriano Gatto) has an incurable thing for Portia (Susan Drozd), a smoking-hot young heiress hotly pursued by dukes and princes with tons of money but absolutely no game. Portia loves Bassanio, but she shall hath no scrubs, so Bassanio asks his main man Antonio, a Venetian merchant, to spot him some cash.
Antonio, in turn, makes the truly boneheaded move of borrowing the money from a spiteful Jewish moneylender by the name of Shylock (Saul Elkin), who has an ancient ax to grind against Antonio specifically and Christianity in general. Shylock lends the money with the grim caveat that if Antonio does not fully repay the debt within three months, he is entitled to a pound of of the merchant's flesh. Think of Shylock as the godfather of predatory lending.
Bassanio, after going through an absurd ritual involving three locked boxes to win Portia's hand -- a sort of 14th-century mixture of "The Bachelorette" and "The Price is Right" -- gets what he was after. But Antonio isn't so lucky. After his ships are reported lost at sea, he forfeits his end of the bloody bargain, and things really start to heat up.
Elkin's performance as Shylock is a study in withering condescension and untempered disgust, a chilling embodiment of the prejudices at the center of this play, the ways in which they draw on deep historical roots and seem doomed to propagate themselves endlessly.
Peter Palmisano, an actor who rarely disappoints in Shakespearean roles, brings Antonio, in all his affected honor and his own detestable prejudices, to brilliant life. As Bassanio, Gatto is the picture of affability and Drozd, as Portia, gives her character a confident and deeply appealing interpretation. David Autovino has some great comic moments, while the interplay between Chris Labanca as the clownish Launcelot and David Lundy as his father is more than a bit cute. A couple of glaring performances lag far behind the lot, but on the whole this cast deserves accolades for rendering their lines so deftly and with so much genuine feeling.
As usual, sound designer Tom Makar plays an indispensable role in establishing the play's alternately lighthearted and deeply menacing tenor with a sound design that inserts itself into the play without ever making itself too apparent. He's helped by the able lighting designer Chris Cavanagh, set designer Ron Schwartz and costumer designer Ken Shaw.
The result of all this is a "Merchant of Venice" that in some ways reduces the distance between 14th century Italy and 21st century Buffalo to a hair's breadth. It makes it not just easy but utterly necessary for us consider just how far our prejudices have traveled since then and gives us an o
> THEATER REVIEW
"The Merchant of Venice"
Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)
Shakespeare in Delaware Park through July 10 at Shakespeare Hill, Delaware Park. Free. For information, visit www.shakespeareindelawarepark.org or call 856-4533.