To thine own Shylock be true

I took a few hours off from The Whistler to see the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company‘s Merchant of Venice yesterday, having heard about it from Billy Chace, the actor who’s playing Bassanio (encountered, it must be said, in the Blue Wisp Jazz Club).

Shylock and Antonio square off for the media

Shylock and Antonio square off for the media

The show, which runs through June 3rd in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, was one of the best Merchants I’ve seen, though I recall some very good ones from the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Globe, the Folger.  A couple roles here were downright memorable.

I found Kelly Mengelkoch as Portia quite convincing as a comic character, especially the nonverbal interplay in which she engages  her maid. Yet her excellent comic sense may undermine the quality-of-mercy scene, where we can never quite take her seriously or, consequently, believe that Antonio is in  much jeopardy. The real gem here is Brian Isaac Phillips’ Shylock, whose backstory emerges in a framing device: at the opening he places a stone on the grave of his Leah, the departed wife and mother, and at the end, having been forced to convert to Christianity by the very men who spat at him for being a Jew, he has to hand a stone through the bars of the gate to the Jewish cemetery to Tubal to be placed on that same grave on his behalf–and Tubal spits on him.  Thus what happens in between–all the vitriol he spews, all his “extreme cruelty,” as the title page of the first folio has it–while losing none of its ugly force, is rendered much deeper by our understanding him as human, broken, conditioned. It takes the “I am a Jew” speech a step further: perhaps his piety is real, or at the very least his twistedness is related to his being a man of sorrows. Framing device aside, Phillips brings a sadness to the anger that gives you pause and may even make you ache.

The company took the (for them) unusual step of producing this play in Renaissance garb: no Fascist brownshirts, no Hawiaan muu-muus, no Goths. And they honor the text, a habit which, though not unheard of in the annals of  Shakespeare performance, is apt to warm the cockles of a playwright’s heart.

Wow. I hope to see other productions if I’m able to return to Cincinnati in the future.

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