Half a pound of flesh

The Merchant of Venice

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Gabe Samrock
The Ensemble Shakespeare Company
Center Stage
48 W. 21st St. 4th fl. [(888)751-5958]
Equity showcase (closes Dec. 19)
Review by Julie Halpern

The Ensemble Shakespeare Company is dedicated to presenting the works of Shakespeare, and contemporary classics in a text-driven context. Eschewing special effects, and unhindered by specific production goals, director Gabe Samrock's minimalist approach was taken too far, for this production had an unfinished look. The bare black stage was devoid of furniture, save one table, and raw, ungelled lights glared relentlessly against the blackness on the actors and the audience, creating an unsettling feeling. Pleasant rock tunes playing softly throughout provided a gentle respite amidst the evening's edginess. Karl A. Ruckdeschel's costumes were uninspired, but Tom Kulesa's colorful masks were very effective.

The plot revolves around cash-poor Bassanio's desire to woo the wealthy noblewoman Portia. He enlists the help of his friend Antonio, a merchant with extensive maritime holdings, to guarantee a transaction with the Jewish money lender Shylock. Shylock agrees to give Antonio the money with the stipulation that if he cannot repay it at the appointed time, Shylock is to take his payment in a pound of Antonio's flesh. Since Shakespeare's time it has been debated whether Shakespeare was anti-Semitic or just playing to the bigotry of his audiences. At any rate, most of the characters here are blatantly anti-Semitic, including Shylock's own daughter, Jessica, who can't wait to escape her Jewishness by marrying the Christian Lorenzo. Shylock's constant references to his love of money ("My daughter...my ducats!") doesn't add to his appeal. When Antonio is unable to pay Shylock in a timely fashion, a court battle ensues, and Portia, who has now married Bassanio, disguises herself and takes over the courtroom proceedings, saving Antonio's life.

Caleb Sekeres created a touching, surprisingly balanced portrait of the pathetic, unsavory Shylock. Drawing on Shylock's anger owing to years of abuse and discrimination, his courtroom scene was particularly powerful. Amy Brienes's charming Portia lacked the power and range needed to bring this role to life. Anthea Fane was quite sympathetic as the willful, passionate, Jessica. Jeff Bearden was a youthful, appealing Bassanio, and Erik Sherr was a brooding , glamorous Antonio. (A hint of a homoerotic subplot, with Bassanio and Antonio exchanging kisses on the sly, did not work well, however.) Jim Jack's dignified presence and rich voice made him an exceptional Duke. Christopher Persil's work as Launcelot Gobbo was a brilliant comic jewel. Persil's flawless timing, fluid movement, and facility with a doll representing his father were highlights of the evening. Christopher Roberts was miscast as Lorenzo but made excellent acting choices, creating a compelling character. His work as Portia's two suitors showed his depth and range. Mike Abernethy was a lusty and likable Gratiano.

Miriam Abbey, Linda A. Conte, Jamie Gamble, and Alan Ostroff also contributed strong work to the ensemble effort.

Box Score:

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

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Copyright 1999 Julie Halpern