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A CurtainUp Review
The Globe's Merchant of Venice In An All Too Brief Stop At The Lincoln Center Festival

Hath not a Jew eyes?— Shylock, the tragic central figure. Parts of this and Portia's famous The quality of mercy is not strain'd speech are probably the play's most famous and most frequently quoted words.

Who chooses me must give and hazard all he hath. — Inscription on one of the three caskets that take center stage in the play's comic romantic subplots.
The fatal "pound of flesh" bargain being struck.
Theater wouldn't be theater without at least a few Shakespeare productions to give new life and meaning to some of the Bard's most famous characters and words. This year one of Shakespeare's most famous speeches even found its own interpreter not in a theater but at the Republican convention, with Senator Ted Cruz giving his own twist to Mark Antony's famous "I've come to bury Caesar not to praise him."

But the Bard's enduring popularity doesn't mean a year can't easily go by without Curtainup covering new interpretations of his trickier and harder to stage plays. While we've reviewed the play more than a dozen times, that doesn't come near the number of our encounters with Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night and other top favorites. That's why this year might well be remembered for our covering not one but three productions of his trickiest to interpret and stage plays, The Merchant of Venice.

This trio of new versions began last January with a drastically streamlined and different Sephardic Merchant at New York's Center for Jewish History embellished with Ladino songs that breathed Jewish authenticity and poetic fervor into the story. Though whittled down to seven characters and 90 minutes without intermission, it managed to deliver the essential moral allegory and nearly all the most famous speeches.

Most recently, Shakespeare & Company has mounted an updated version of its Merchant at its Tina Packer Theater. Chesley Plemmons, who like me was deeply moved by the ( 2002 Outdoor production found the current version — again starring Jonathan Epstein and helmed by the Company's founder Tina Packer — even richer and deeper.

While New Yorkers can combine a trip to the Berkshires with catching the excellent Merchant. . . revival in Lenox until August 21st, The Old Globe's striking touring production directed by Jonathan Munby and with Jonathan Pryce as memorably moving Shylock has made an all too brief 7-performance stopover as part the Lincoln Center Festival. Therefore, unless you were lucky enough, like me, to snag a ticket, this review comes too late to urge you to see it . . . unless you live in DC Chicago where the company will make its its last U.S. stops before heading to China and back to London.

Merchant Finale
The almost too painful to watch finale that has Jessica chanting a Jewish song as her father is led on stage for his forced baptism.
Like the other two versions of Shakespeare's mixing of comedy and romance with pitch dark tragedy covered at Curtainup this year, the Globe production is yet another fascinating tackling of this dramatic schizophrenia. It's also the first time Shylock and Jessica have been played by a real father and daughter. And while we expect Jonathan Pryce to tackle the complexities of the titular character — as he indeed does— Phoebe Pryce epitomizes the homily "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree." Her Jessica makes this a most worthy casting coup.

I can't recall a more harrowing yet stirring finale in which we see Phoebe Price's Jessica as traumatized by the aftermath of abandoning her faith and her father, as the father is by the baptism forced on him by the my-religion-first society he lives in. Pryce's agonized moans as he endures each step of the ritual is almost too painful to watch.

A festive singng and dancing prologue takes place in darkness to set the tone for the play's dark and light duality.
Director Munby has wasted no time establishing the play's very dark and lighter duality. The lights remain on, but the stage is shrouded in darkness as it erupts in a burst of music and singing by a group of Venetian revelers. All are dressed in black and wear masks that reflect the less than virtuous instincts of a pleasure and money focused society. And even as this musical prologue brings on a couple dressed in white, shades of romances to come, the rampant anti-semitism of there's also an ugly street scene showing two Jewish men being harassed. That Jews are easy targets is also made clear by both Shylock and his friend Tubal having circular yellow patches sewn to their outer garments that were required in Venice during the 1600s — a requirement chillingly inspirational for Hitler.

Designer Mike Britton has created a set that effectively segues between Venice and the Belmont home of the heiress Portia with minimal props. (The finely detailed costumes more than make up for the minimalism in that department). The Venice scenes play out against a brick wall wth a door and a balcony-like window that occasionally opens.

Merchant Finale
The famous trial scene metaphorically underscoring the myth of Jews as Christ killers.
I admit that I've never been all that amused by the casket scene that forces Portia to follow her father's dictum that to win her hand a suitor must choose correctly among three caskets — the idea being that the suitor choosing the modest leaden one rather than the more ornate ones is more likely to be a a man with good values. (Presidential wannabe Donald Trump surely wouldn't win this matchmaking game). Though the two losers (Michael Hadley and Giles Terera) perform with flair, when it comes to the best comic scenes in this production, the big laughs come courtesy of Stefan Adegbola's hilarious Launcelot Gobbo. He even gets the audience involved in justifying his leaving his Jewish boss, Shylock, to join the Christians and help Jessica escape the confinement of her father's home.

While Rachel Pickup is a lovely and elegant Portia, her performance is not as richly nuanced as Phoeobe Pryce's Jessica. While I'm quibbling, I found the way Antonio (Dominic Matham) is strapped to a cross-like bar for Shylock to extract his pound of flesh too obvious a visual metaphor to explain the history of anti-Semitism based on images of Jews as Christ killers. On the other hand, the way the often referred to erotic undercurrents between Bassamio (Dan Fredenburgh) and Antonoio are forcefully handled in a brief, wordless scene that underscores that people Bassiano reject any type of outsider.

Perhaps the all too valid parallels of this troublesome play's issues to the world we live in, accounts for this season's multiple re-interpretations.

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The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
Director: Jonathan Munby
Cast (alphabetical order): Stefan Adegbola (Launcelot Gobbo), Andy Apollo (Lorenzo), Raj Bajaj( Solanio), Jonothan Coy (Gratiano), Dan Fredenburgh (Bassanio),Michael Hadley (Duke of Venice/Tubal),Colin Haigh(Balthasar), John Hastings (Ensemble), Christopher Logan (Arragon), Dominic Matham (Antonio), Brian Martin (Salarino), Rachel Pickup (Portia), Jonathan Pryce (Shylock), Phoebe Pryce (Jessica, Giles Terera (Morocco), Meghan Tyler (Ensemble)
Musicians: Jeremy Avis, Dan Pritchard, arry Napiier, Lea Cornthwaite
Designer: Mike Britton
Composer: Jules Maxwell
Choreographer: Lucy Hind
Fight Director:Kara Waters
Rose Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center Broadway at West 60th Street, 5th floor
7 performances, from 7/20/16; closing 7/24/16 
with the production moving on to DC, Chicago and overseas, including China.
Feature by Elyse Sommer based on 7/23/16 matinee

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