William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” receiving its first local professional production since 1950, proves to be an unwieldy mess, even as a good cast gamely tries to reconcile a sobering drama surrounded by the antics of insipid young lovers.
Give director Sidonie Garrett and her creative team credit for trying to wrestle this “comedy” to the ground. The play would be a challenge for any theater company; this production, rehearsed on a tight schedule for a limited run, offers nice performances and a spare but sharp-looking physical production.
Everything about it — Gene Emerson Friedman’s serviceable set, Mary Traylor’s ornate costumes, Ward Everhart’s dynamic lighting — is traditional. This show, in fact, looks a lot like a standard outdoor production from the Shakespeare Festival, only on a smaller scale and without the mosquitoes and police sirens.
Garrett’s staging tends to arrange actors in a static, two-dimensional line spanning the width of the set. And the recorded music by Greg Mackender, although varied and evocative, at times drowns out the actors.
Most of the bard’s comedies aren’t all that funny and this one is no exception. But the heart of the play really isn’t supposed to be funny at all. Antonio (Robert Gibby Brand), an openly anti-Semitic Venetian businessman in the shipping trade, is forced to ask for what amounts to a bridge loan from Shylock, the Jewish moneylender.
Shylock (Gary Neal Johnson) passive-aggressively agrees to the loan with a smile while explaining that his price will be a pound of Antonios’s flesh should he default. Sure enough, when Antonio is unable to repay the money on schedule, Shylock demands a trial and asks the judge to enforce the terms of the loan.
His lust for vengeance is a direct result of his daughter Jessica (Megan Herrera) eloping with Lorenzo (Ben Auxier), a young Christian. Scholars and theatergoers alike have debated whether the play is inherently anti-Semitic or if Shylock is a sympathetic character victimized by the courts and social prejudices. Either argument can be supported, but the expressions of anti-Semitism in this play are transparent and bitter.
The thought of cutting a pound of flesh from a living human being is, of course, the stuff of nightmares (or slasher movies) and seems jarringly incompatible with the frothy romantic relationships that make up most of the play. Yet the story of Shylock is the only valid part of the narrative.
Johnson delivers a finely crafted and deeply felt performance as Shylock, playing him as an understandable human being while minimizing the stereotypical aspects of the role. Brand, as usual, is impeccable and handles Shakespeare’s language with great clarity.
Nice work is also registered by Matt Rapport, arguably the best comic Shakespearean actor in town, as the bombastic-yet-charming Gratiano. Jake Walker as Bassanio, Antonio’s young friend, exudes warmth with a perpetual gleam in his eye, even if he sometimes fails to find the rhythms of the Bard’s language.
Bree Elrod plays Portia, the object of Bassanio’s romantic ardor, and projects stately poise in a performance that is generally flat. She exhibits sharp timing but inadequate vocal range in the trial scene, where Portia appears disguised as a male doctor who finds the legal loopholes to free Antonio of his debt and force Shylock to renounce his religion. (It’s a Shakespearean comedy, so you have to have some cross-dressing.)
Kendra Keller offers a nice supporting performance as Nerissa, Portia’s handmaid. Andy Perkins, as the clown Launcelot Gobbo, is as broad as the side of a freight car but is, at times, very funny.
Other solid supporting performances are turned in by Darren Kennedy, Ty Carter and Nathan Bovos. Scott Cordes gets the first serious laughs in the show when he appears in an absurdly puffed-up costume as one of Portia’s suitors. He appears later as the Duke of Venice and projects a more sober bearing, although his costume is no less bizarre.
Garrett opens the show with a pantomime, in which major characters pass each other in the street, to establish the religious and ethnic prejudices of Venetians. And she closes with Jessica privately seeking solace through Jewish prayer after she and her father have become Christians — Jessica by choice, Shylock by court order. Together these bookend sequences represent an admirable attempt to create a broader context for the play.
“The Merchant of Venice” continues at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the White Theatre of the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park; call 913-327-8054. The production will also be performed March 26-29 at the Polsky Theatre at Johnson County Community College; call 913-469-4445. For more information, visit www.kcshakes.org.