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      The Merchant of Venice
    A pound of fresh

    The Pearl Theatre Company continues its tradition of staging well-crafted versions of classic theater by putting a few skillful twists on Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice."


    Act Five of Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice" finds Lorenzo and Jessica on their way to Portia's house in Belmont. The bright moon and the sweet breezes, they decide, were the very same for Troilus and Cressida, Thisbe and Pyramus, Dido and Aeneas, Medea and Jason on their tragic tales' most determinative nights. These allusions lead to a reckoning of their own condition. Like the said list of tragic lovers, they too have escaped the shackles of racial, national, or religious rancor of the world that would have them parted. Their references are ill-boding, but for now the music plays. Or does it? Lorenzo goes on:

    Company: Pearl Theatre Company.
    Written by: William Shakespeare.
    Directed by: Shepard Sobel.
    Cast: Dan Daily, Cornell Womack, Jason Ma, Scott Whitehurst, Sean McNall, Christopher Moore, Celeste Ciulla, Rachel Botchan, Patrick Toon, Dominic Cuskern, Calli Sarkesh, Andy Prosky, Edward Seamon, Edward Griffin, Eunice Wong.
    Sound design by: Sara Bader.
    Set design by: Sarah Lambert.
    Costumes by: Sam Fleming.
    Production stage manager: Lisa Ledwich
    Light design: Stephen Petrilli
    Production assistants: Rebecca Felming, Yvonne Perez, Gina Yolango
    Costume prop manager: Sunny Carrao

    Related links: Official site
    Theater 80
    80 St. Marks Place
    Oct. 25 - Dec. 7, 2003

    How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
    Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
    Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night
    Become the touches of sweet harmony.
    Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
    Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
    There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
    But in his motion like an angel sings,
    Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins:
    Such harmony is in immortal souls;
    But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
    Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

    When actor Sean McNall delivers this speech in the Pearl Theatre Company's sharp, brave rendering of "Merchant" (running in rep with Sheridan's "The Rivals") we are given an opportunity to depart from the theater relieved of a painfully difficult problem: Deciding which source in the play is the source of wrong or, for that matter, of right.

    The confounding complications of judgment in Shakespeare's most controversial play are hardly made any easier to face by director Shepard Sobel. Antonio, Bassanio, and Portia are riddled with apparent contradictions, living and acting now with loving impulsiveness, now with reckless cruelty. Antonio (Dan Daily) puts his life on the line for a cause he hardly shares: his companion's seeking a wife. We learn however, that this selfless soul detests, even once spat on Shylock.

      The Pearl Theatre Co. is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and "The Merchant of Venice" was its first production. Rarely has a company consistently made available so many clean, authentic (not to mention affordable) renderings of essential classics.
    Bassanio (Scott Whitehurst) has fecklessly squandered his wealth, risks his friend's life for his own benefit, seeks a wife first for her riches, and still finds moral ground to despise Shylock. Portia (Celeste Ciulla) saves her betrothed's friend (despite this friend's rather unsubtle resentment of her) with an ingenious, passionate appeal to mercy and its holiness, then shows none toward Shylock. No doubt it was tempting for Sobel to allow his actors to "choose" a side and guide the hearer to some clue to simplification, but to the great credit of this talented cast, they resist, which is why Lorenzo's words that night in Belmont are so pardoning.

    In the medieval model of the universe, the word or wish of the Prime Mover, or God, was breathed from on high and carried down from sphere to sphere by a descending order of angels, who communicated with one another by celestial music. It was thought that if one listened carefully on a silent night, that music could be heard. Lorenzo attempts it, but later concedes that it is unlikely. Such harmony in this now-antiquated idea of the world order may, to him, exist in "immortal souls," but not down here on earth, the furthest from and most abandoned-by-God of places. At last, he gives us something to explain the madness of all the ancient, unconquerable discord among men. How could an oath, the word of Man, mean a thing? In this play, not one is kept.

    Dominic Cuskern is a memorable, eloquent Shylock. It is clear from the start that his spiteful (and not necessarily unreasonable) rage will overtake — and has, perhaps for some time — whatever religious gentleness may have once existed. Thanks to Sam Fleming's thoroughly impressive costuming, Shylock's ascetic gabardine mocks the prodigal Christians' shimmering hypocrisy as powerfully as his reminder to them that they are slave-keepers begging for a release from their friend's own bond. Indeed Cuskern makes it difficult not to sympathize deeply with the famous usurer, but Daily's low-key Antonio frustrates this by his own irreverence of Fortune. Antonio's financial and legal disasters that come with the reported loss of his merchant ships hardly depress him as much as the loss of his friend to a wife. Shylock's grief over the betrayal of his own daughter seems drawn as much (or more) from her stealing money from him as the loss of the apple of his eye.

    Cuskern's Shylock is so blinded by ancient wounds and abreactions that he has lost a father's sense. It reminds a reader of George Eliot's Silas Marner, gone to mesmerizing greed years after a terrible false judgment that robbed him of his faith in mankind:

    He loved his guineas best ... the crowns and half-crowns that were his own earnings, begotten by his labor; he loved them all. He spread them out in heaps and bathed his hands in them ... felt their rounded outline between his thumb and fingers, and thought fondly of the guineas ... as if they had been unborn children —

    Marner was saved by the accidental arrival of a wandering toddler, who became his daughter. Shylock is given no such gift. Or is he?

    The Pearl Theatre Company is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and "The Merchant of Venice" happens to be the first production it brought forth in October 1984. There is not a true lover of theater or literature in the city who can afford to miss a single show they produce — rarely has a company consistently made available so many clean, authentic (not to mention affordable) renderings of essential classics. This production is no exception.

    NOVEMBER 27, 2003

    Reader comments on The Merchant of Venice:

  • [no subject]   from , Nov 29, 2004
  • review of merchant of venice   from chaitrali gundawar, Jul 20, 2006

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