Shakespeare’s Merchant of Manhattan?

I liked the concept – Merchant of Venice set in 1920s Manhattan – but I wasn’t sure it would work. Verdict: I loved it. The New York accent in the opening scene where Antonio complains he knows not why he is so sad, well, it’s priceless. And later, when that trader retells how Shylock cries out “my daw-ter, my ducets,” it’s too funny.

The overall complaint is that Merchant, in post-Holocaust Western society, is a difficult play. It is. But the Shakespeare Theater’s production dealt with the anti-Semitism without making excuses for it – it was uncomfortable, particularly when the Duke sentences Shylock to convert to Christianity or lose his life – but it was also in the context of a darker time, so as to allow the audience some separation.

I hadn’t read the play since college, maybe even high school, but I was struck by the disconnect between the two connected stories – the bargain between Shylock and Antonio, and the romance of Bassanio and Portia. When I read it before, Portia was much more calculating, she knew how she would trap Shylock. Here, she seemed to discover it as she read the law, as the hearing proceeded, and she was moved – not to mercy as she so famously champions – but to a strict adherence of the law, by Shylock’s claim that “I only want my bond.”

In all, it walked the fine line and delivered an entertaining, yet thought-provoking performance. Not so disturbing as it might have been, but not light, either.

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