But to see them together, a convergence that occurs only twice, is to feel a chill of pity and terror. These disparate individuals, defined by their dress, are united in a rage and despair that cannot be denied. We both fear them and identify with them. They could be our most dreaded adversaries; they could also be us.
Ms. Coonrod’s attempt to solve the problem of Shylock by multiplication is surprisingly effective. When I read about her “Merchant” — first staged last year in Venice’s ancient Jewish ghetto (with a mock trial conducted after one performance by Ruth Bader Ginsburg) — it sounded gimmicky. But this experimental director has a knack for transforming high concepts into accessible theater.
So it proves with this two-hour “Merchant,” which moves across a bare stage with a light and giddy tread — until it doesn’t. The show begins with a prologue delivered (in Italian, with supertitles) by a commedia dell’arte-style clown in a codpiece (an antic Francesca Sarah Toich), who gleefully describes the transformative power of love. Huh?
But there’s method in Ms. Coonrod’s midsummer madness. A strain of uneasiness soon emerges within the romantic entanglements, a mood beautifully reflected in Frank London’s multifaceted music, performed by an onstage sextet.
Of course Shylock, in all his incarnations, sounds a disruptive note of discord. But even more than usual in “Merchant,” people who initially charm us turn sour.
That includes the title character, Antonio (Toussaint Jeanlouis), who disastrously borrows money from Shylock, and the best friend he is trying to assist, Bassanio (Titus Tompkins). They and their sybaritic buddies are smug in their social insularity. Even the witty heiress Portia (Linda Powell), whose cross-dressing turn as a lawyer saves Antonio’s skin, starts to seem (to quote a friend of mine’s description of a socialite) like “a rich girl trying to be nice.”
Ms. Coonrod doesn’t make the mistake of presenting her Shylock as holier than the rest. His hunger for vengeance has made him vicious. But you feel viscerally where that rancor comes from.
And partly because much of the acting is without sharp psychological shading — and because people change character with their clothes — you start to think that any of those onstage could be transformed into Shylock. Or his rebellious daughter, Jessica (a very good Michelle Uranowitz). Or Portia or Antonio.
There’s a harrowing moment toward the end when Shylock, having lost his case to extract a “pound of flesh” from Antonio, steps from the stage into the audience. The Venetians gather at the edge of the proscenium in a forbidding, exclusionary wall. It is frighteningly easy to imagine yourself on either side of that dangerous divide.
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