Rafael de Acha's production of The Merchant of Venice is not perfect, but it also cannot be dismissed. It boasts gripping and often extraordinary performances by Steve Gladstone, Annemaria Rajala, Euriamis Losada, Nicholas Richberg, and Stephen S. Neal, as well as spectacularly lovely costumes by Estela Vrancovich and singularly touching original music by de Acha himself. One could quibble that the rest of the cast is not on that level, or that the streamlined script sacrifices much in the way of subtlety.
One of the Bard's notoriously problematic plays, The Merchant of Venice has been banned as anti-Semitic and championed as an argument for humanism. The text seems to support both views, and the show now onstage at the New Theatre in Coral Gables is far from certain in tone. But there is no denying the power of this staging. And though the famous trial scene remains troublesome, by the time the improbably happy musical finale comes around, it is easy to understand the ovation at the end.
Fast on the heels of an immensely entertaining Romeo and Juliet that boasted much of the same cast, this second offering of the Shakespeare Project 2005 raises the stakes of drama in South Florida and continues to make the New Theatre's ambitious venture a celebration of plays and players at their best. Still, the ethical thickets of The Merchant of Venice make hunting for clarity tough. The facets of meaning are many, the moral dilemmas too much. The plot itself seems disjointed: a romance that turns on a suitor's fairy-tale ritualistic choice among three coffers, played alongside a courtroom drama where life hangs on the balance. Portia, the heroine, admirably advocates for love of life over love of gold -- but she herself is of course enormously wealthy. Bassanio plays on Antonio's unspoken love and lust to pressure his friend into a precarious debt, all to gain a rich wife himself. Shylock the Jew, a "man no less sinned against than sinning," famously argues for equality and fairness by asking, "Hath not a Jew eyes? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?"
The Merchant of Venice
New Theatre, 4120 Laguna St, Coral Gables
Written by William Shakespeare. Directed by Rafael de Acha, assisted by Ricky J. Martinez. With Steve Gladstone, Annemaria Rajala, Euriamis Losada, Nicholas Richberg, Arnaldo Carmouze, Korken Iskenderian, Christian Mansfield, Stephen S. Neal, Beatriz Montanez, and Cecilia Torres. Through July 31. 305-443-5909. The Shakespeare Project 2005 continues with Macbeth, August 4-28.
De Acha in his director's notes calls the play "a plea for tolerance,'' pointing out that the "resonance of Shylock's pleas ... still packs a visceral punch." True, but it is also a tad too simple to make Shylock a hero in this play: The murderous moneylender still asks for nothing less than a pound of Antonio's flesh as payment for a defaulted loan. What can one make of such a man?
The answers are not easy, and neither are the choices actors and directors must make when facing the Bard's moral enigmas. Steve Gladstone's Shylock is always well-spoken, and there is no denying the beauty of the English language as this actor brings it to life; on the other hand, his virtually unmodulated vocal performance keeps passion at bay until he at last suggests some of Shylock's volcanic rage at the trial's end. This is not all his fault, since in this edition of the play it is not easy to make a connection between Shylock's hatred of Antonio and the loss of not only his fortune but also his daughter. Like New Theatre's recent Romeo and Juliet, this Merchant is played in two acts, edited down from five. There are casualties: Antonio now seems to have no other friend but Bassanio, blind Old Gobbo is gone, and servants are nowhere in sight save the overworked Launcelot Gobbo -- who inherits a couple of lines but loses some of his intense dislike of his boss Shylock.
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Conversely, some of the textual concentration intensifies important themes. As directed by de Acha, both Antonio's desire for Bassanio and Bassanio's almost unconscious manipulation of his friend are as unmistakable as they are fascinating. It helps that Euriamis Losada and Nicholas Richberg, fresh from playing Romeo and Mercutio, have such a natural rapport. And it must be said that Richberg's Antonio rises to tragic depths in the trial scene as he faces what he thinks will be his demise. Golden-voiced Stephen S. Neal, relishing the sheer theatricality of playing several small roles, is deliciously over-the-top as Portia's unsuccessful suitors and then leaves all slapstick behind and brings understated dignity to his portrayal of the Duke of Venice.
As Portia, Rajala begins a bit schoolmarmish and later frankly misses the powerful sense of rhythm inherent in her "quality of mercy" speech. But she manages to make sense of both the earnest cross-dressing lawyer and the humorously offended fiancée, which is no small feat. In fact it cannot be overstressed what a triumph it is for this American repertory company (which will tackle Macbeth next) to make Shakespeare's words sound so, well, natural.
The physical production is simple, with Michael McKeever's Verona for Romeo and Juliet now passing for Venice with the addition of a hanging schmatte here and there. The action is set in Mussolini's Italy, which makes it hard to believe Shylock could get as far as he does in a fascist court of law and certainly makes nonsense of his speech about owning slaves. But the look of the spectacle, thanks to Vrancovich's Thirties costumes, is actually dazzling. Portia's and Nerissa's sexy, silky dresses in Act One -- which could have been worn by Dominique Sanda and Stefania Sandrelli in Bertolucci's The Conformist -- are enough to justify the cosmetic anachronism.
The show opens to the strains of the aria "Rachel Quand du Seigneur" from Halevy's opera La Juive, which is no less effective for being obvious. In Act One and again at the close, however, there is also de Acha's bel canto setting of Shakespeare's "Tell me where," uncredited in the program. Words and music blossom into a vocal sextet of a finale, incidentally revealing the considerable singing talents of the cast and especially of Rajala and Losada. It is an ineffably beautiful way of meeting the challenges of disjointed moral tone, of impossible dramatic conflicts, of life and death that remain open questions in the play. Shakespeare, a music lover, would have smiled.