Mining for gold

The Merchant of Venice

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Carol Bennett Gerber
42nd St. Workshop
432 W. 42nd St., 5th floor (695-4173)
Equity showcase (closes July 22)
Review by Julie Halpern

Director Carol Bennett Gerber conceived this innovative production of Shakespeare's controversial masterpiece while visiting her husband Charles Gerber's relatives in Chicago. Gerber's Hungarian Jewish ancestors arrived in San Francisco in the late 1840s at the time of the California gold rush.

Their unique experience as Jews and foreigners in this rough-and-tumble environment created an intriguing premise that fits perfectly with the anti-Semitic world of Shakespeare's play. Never has an Orthodox Jew looked more out of his element than when contrasted with the hard-living, southwestern-accented saloon denizens of this era. Although the theme of anti-Semitism resonates most strongly for post-World War II theatregoers, the plots of the caskets and the rings worked effectively as well.

Charles Gerber's Shylock was a triumph for this exceptional actor, best-known for his comic characters. Skilfully walking Shylock's emotional tightrope, sympathetic one moment and maddening the next, Gerber explored every inch of the usurer's complicated and contrary psyche. Jennifer Jiles's glamorous, patrician Portia was beautifully realized, and her glittering intelligence added great depth to her work. Judd Rubin was a handsome, fun -loving Bassanio; Jenny Greeman a gentle, romantic Jessica; and Jeff Taylor an ardent blond dreamboat as Lorenzo, her Christian husband. Nicole Taylor's Nerissa was a fragile, sensual beauty, creating sparks with Peter Farrell's Gratiano. G.W. Reed was a likable good ol' boy Antonio, Bill Corry an elegant presence as Salerio, and Walter Hyman a befuddled bundle of energy as Solanio and Balthasar. Sandy Moore was a strikingly noble Prince of Morocco, and Jerry Less an effete, spineless Prince of Aragon. Doug Stone's Launcelot Gobbo connected with his character's repulsive qualities but missed his sly humor. Craig Braun was enjoyable in the small roles of old Gobbo and the Duke and John Lisanti was effective in the brief role of Shylock's friend Tubal.

Gorgeous music by Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869), the first internationally known American composer, as well as original music by Mr. Gerber, added authenticity and energy to the production. The uncredited costumes looked fabulous on everyone, particularly Jiles' and Taylor's frothy, provocative gowns. The only disappointments were the thrown-together set, which did not evoke the time period, and the harsh, unsubtle lighting.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Sets: 0
Costumes: 2
Lighting 1/Sound: 2

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Copyright 2001 Julie Halpern