How do you solve a problem like Shylock? In an age when civilized society has abjured blatant displays of anti-Semitism, how does a production of The Merchant of Venice convincingly and sensitively portray Shakespeare’s Jewish moneylender, a villain scorned and abused by his Christian neighbors and possessed of a bitter, stony heart ripe for comeuppance?
Some modern productions have tried to soften Shylock, over-emphasize his victimhood, excuse his cruelty in various ways, perhaps overlooking how, as with Iago, Shylock’s motivations are right there in the text. The superb new production at the Secret Theatre directed by Alberto Bonilla accepts Shakespeare’s villain at face value, portraying him through Richard Mazda’s scorching performance as a complex, twisted bad guy deserving of both sympathy and despite.
Shakespeare couldn’t create a one-dimensional villain if he tried, whether in a tragedy like Othello or a comedy like this story of a hard-luck merchant, a brilliantly manipulative young woman, and the triumph of true love. Shylock’s fully drawn character is all the more impressive since Shakespeare never met a Jew in his life – England had kicked out the entire tribe before the Bard’s time. The Secret Theatre production gloriously plays up the comedic and romantic threads of the plot without reducing Shylock to a stock character.
Bonilla has set the action in post-World War II Italy. Bassanio and his buddies are soldiers returned from action, still in uniform. A soundtrack of big-band swing accompanies the action, with an antique radio centering Sandy Yaklin’s compressed multi-level set. Over rough business attire, Shylock wears a ragged cloak with a Jewish star sewn onto it. Hitler images and references abound from the first moment. Portia and Nerissa are bawdy song-and-dance dames.
The conceit works, thanks to Bonilla’s fully realized vision and the efforts of a strong cast. Michael Vincent Carrera’s dignified Antonio lends gravitas to the whole milieu, balancing not only Shylock’s cruelty and spite but the derring-do of the boisterous young soldiers – good-hearted Bassanio (a broad and elastic yet grounded performance by Zachary Clark), quietly romantic Lorenzo (Dylan Cote), even loose-cannon bigot Gratiano (Tom Harney in a shudderingly nasty turn).
Joy Donze gives us the full measure of Portia, Shakespeare’s greatest female character. Whether squirming before her undesirable suitors in her 1940s dresses, or making the Duke and his court look foolish as she foils Shylock’s logic in her comical disguise as a man (Anna Winter’s period-atmospheric costumes add dimension throughout), this noble maiden, aided ably by her attendant Nerissa (an acute Grace Merriman), is a beacon throughout, wryly comical and earthily believable.
With Donze’s Portia and Mazda’s Shylock leading the way, nearly the whole cast maintains the mastery of Shakespeare’s sometimes difficult language that’s needed to make the rather absurd storylines clear and offer the effects Shakespeare intended. Famous passages like Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” plea and Portia’s “The quality of mercy is not strain’d” speech to the court slide by organically, thus all the more powerfully. The production finds room for the many modes of Shakespearean theatricality: the hilarity of Mike Lee’s mean, slapstick Launcelot and Matt Biagini’s guitar-strumming Prince of Aragon; the pleas of Shylock for understanding and of Portia for mercy for Antonio; the romance beneath an overlarge moon (in Paul T. Kennedy’s evocative lighting) between Lorenzo and Jessica (Isabella Curti, making up for her paucity of lines with glowing expressions and body language).
Hie thee to Long Island City, Queens for this worthy Merchant of Venice, at the Secret Theatre until September 18. It’s easily accessible by multiple subway lines. For tickets visit OvationTix online or call 718-392-0722.