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A CurtainUp Review
The Merchant Of Venice

"".— The quality of mercy is not strained . . .-- — Portia
Merchant of Venice
Joseph Menino as Shylock (Photo: Allison Stock)
The Shakespeare Forum's new staging of Shakespeare's high comedy The Merchant of Venice might not evoke a lot of oohs and ahs. There is little novelty or spectacle in this mounting and no big names in the cast, but the play still packs an emotional wallop.

This modern-dress version faithfully retains the story with all its psychological intensity: Portia, a rich heiress living in Belmont, is courted by a number of suitors from various points on the globe. Portia's late (and controlling) father has devised a triple casket contest, in which any suitor courting her must select the chest with her "counterfeit" (as in portrait) in it. To keep things tidy, if a would-be wooer chooses the wrong casket, he must leave Belmont at once. It's a far cry from 21st-century matchmaking! There's also a sub-plot involving Shylock as the comic villain (or is it hero-villain?) that intertwines with the main plot, and that's all I will say here.

Co-directors Sybille Bruun and Andrew Borthwick-Leslie keep the production on an even keel throughout. While it could be tightened up some, Bruun and Borthwick-Leslie do allow us to glimpse those cultural tripwires imbedded in religion and nationality and see how Christians and Jews all-too-easily become entangled in them.

Shylock is the linchpin to any good production, and having a strong actor in this principal part is often the key that turns the lock to a successful staging. Fortunately, Joseph Menino plays the Jew with the right degree of cruelty and revenge. There's no doubt his character is dead-set on having his pound of flesh hewed off Antonio (Dominic Comperatore) in the court scene. Menino smartly balances Shylock's dark side with his more vulnerable one. He does a fine job too with that famous speech that feelingly begins: "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" It is the most affecting language in the entire play, and Menino delivers it with pathos.

Imani Jade Powers, as Shylock's daughter Jessica, is also well cast. Her natural good looks combined with her pluck infuse her Jessica with much vitality. The rest of the cast were more or less uneven in their performances. Since I saw a very early performance in the run perhaps as the cast ripen in their roles they will imbue their parts with more humor and conviction and their iambic pentameters will flow with more ease.

The most conspicuous flaw in the production is that Marie Yokoyama seems to be trying too hard to make the set look like a postcard image of Venice. What does work are the elegant scrims and a small but effectively raised platform toward the back wall of the stage. The problem is that Yokoyama ends up cutting too many corners with the props and one sees blonde wooden crates next to silken textures. No doubt this is due to a limited budget, but the set's parts just don't add up to a whole.

This Merchant won't make you forget other New York stagings like the one with Al Pacino as Shylock. But this production does deliver all the comedy's essentials and a convincing Shylock in Menino. At $18 a ticket it's live theater at its most affordable

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
Directed by Sybille Bruun and Andrew Borthwick-Leslie
Cast: Dominic Comperatore (Antonio), Bill Coyne (Bassanio), Michael Moreno (Gratiano), Zach Libresco (Lorenzo), Lash Dooley (Salanio), Gabriel Lawrence (Solario), Hannah Rose Goalstone (Portia), Sarah Hankins (Nerissa), Joseph Menino (Shylock), Imani Jade Powers, (Jessica), Francis Mateo (Lancelot Gobbo/Morocco), John Smiley (Old Gobbo/Arragon/Tubal/Duke), Elektra and Ivan Birchall (Pages/Servants/Messengers)
Sets & Lighting Design: Marie Yokoyama
Costumes: Brittany Merola
Verse Coach: Tyler Moss
Stage Manager: Gina Costagliola
The Gym (at Judson Memorial Church) at 243 Thompson Street, Greenwich Village. Tickets: $18. For more information,
From 5/22/14; opening 5/29/14; closing 6/14/14
Running time: 2 hours: 40 minutes with one intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 5/23/14
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