*** (out of ****)
Talk about setting the stage.
Director Joe Dowling is certainly a maestro. His vision in crafting The Merchant Of Venice revival now playing Minneapolis' Guthrie is quite an exquisite feast for the eyes, even if the threatened pound of flesh itself remains anything but kosher.
As Guthrie's artistic director, Dowling has clearly taken great pains in advance to forcefully address the inherent anti-Semitism that makes this Shakespeare comedy an often difficult pill to swallow.
From the extensive notes in the program -- Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is quoted: "The damage inflicted on the Jews by The Merchant Of Venice has been far greater than a pound of flesh..."-- to the scheduling of a special April 16 discussion between Dowling and University of Minnesota's Dean Steven J. Rosenstone on the play's "issues and controversies," the director is not only setting the stage for contemplative dialogue around its second presentation on a Guthrie stage, but he also appears to be seeking some political cover.
Putting aside for the moment the more repugnant aspects of Shakespeare's work -- and I'll come back to that shortly since it looms so large -- my biggest difficulty in approaching any Shakespeare play is fine-tuning my admittedly failing hearing to the cadence of the spoken word. Spoken English from the 17th Century is, of course, foreign to the ears of most Americans. And at the Guthrie, which eschews miked actors, it means paying extraordinarily close attention just to follow.
Fortunately, the huge superb cast handles the often challenging diction as if it were second nature and never sounds forced. Three performances are especially noteworthy. As Portia, the ravishing, riveting Michelle O'Neill offers a galvanizing cogency to the entire proceedings. Robert Dorfman offers a surprisingly sympathetic Shylock, the redoubtable Jewish moneylender, particularly via his impassioned soliloquy asking, "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" And as Antonio, the titular merchant, Richard S. Iglewski -- arguably one of Minneapolis' best character actors -- displays a moving, resigned imperturbability toward his would-be fate for his incapacity to repay Shylock.
This is also a dazzling production to behold in terms of its luxuriant design. Riccardo Hernández has succeeded in trumping his own breathtaking set design from Edgardo Mine with a glorious stage, which teamed with Matthew Reinert's elegant richly-hued lighting design (that also features a series of chandeliers) and Paul Tazewell's opulent costume design, beautifully evokes a prosperous Venice.
But for all the top-tier efforts in gilding this lily, it's worth recalling that even Shakespeare once used his beloved character named Juliet to say, "[A] rose by any other name would smell as sweet." At the polar opposite would be this case of The Merchant Of Venice. No matter how dressed up Dowling has made this production, and no matter how cartoonish he reinterprets those characters who express the most contemptible notions regarding Jews, the vile stench from their demonization still hangs in the air long after Shylock withdraws from the stage.
Having said that, I'll give one of the last words to the late great Tyrone Guthrie, namesake for this theatre, who said back in 1955:
It is indeed true that many Jewish boys at school have, through generations, been taunted and execrated as "Shylock." This is to the shame of all humanity. But the remedy is not, I sincerely believe, to boycott Shakespeare's play, and pretend it does not exist, but to interpret it so that it becomes, as its author intended, a fantasia on the twin themes of mercy and justice, in which none of the characters fully exemplify either, in which none of the characters is either wholly good or wholly evil.
With that, I find myself recommending this show, even if its subject matter gives me tremendous pause.
This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).
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