Let’s give props to Cincinnati Shakespeare Company for bringing to the stage The Merchant of Venice, one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays. It’s officially categorized as a comedy, and it contains humorous and romantic elements, including a subplot about contesting for the hand of a wealthy heiress. But the central story of a more dire contest between a moneylender and a businessman is anything but amusing.
Shylock (Brian Isaac Phillips) is a Jew, despised by the arrogant, showily affluent and uniformly Christian citizens of Venice for his business practices — upon which they depend — and his faith. When Bassanio (Billy Chace) needs some scratch to finance his courtship of the wealthy Portia (Kelly Mengelkoch), he turns to his friend Antonio (Jared Joplin), who lacks the immediate cash. He must turn to Shylock who makes the loan, forcing Antonio to agree to yield a pound of flesh if his debt goes unpaid. Confident several enterprises will come through, Antonio agrees. When they fail, Shylock zealously presses to collect his “bond.”
Is the moneylender a villain or a victim? Shakespeare gives him aspects of each, and CSC’s production, directed by Jeremy Dubin (who played Shylock in a 2001 production), does not tilt in either direction. Jews were reviled in Elizabethan England, typically hateful and immoral onstage characters. Shylock, however, is constantly subjected to disrespectful anti-Semitism, not just by Antonio and his bullying friends but also by his own daughter Jessica (Sarah Clark) and his servant Launcelot (Cary Davenport). She abandons him for a Christian husband, stealing many of his personal effects. The self-serving Launcelot finds his way to employment in a Christian household.
Dubin’s production opens and closes the performance with Shylock speaking Hebrew prayers, and each act concludes with him crying out in fury. Phillips plays the role with unsympathetic, impassioned rage, but we cannot help but feel how Shylock has been wronged. The order for him to convert to Christianity evoked murmurs and gasps from the audience.
Mengelkoch turns in a strong performance as the intelligent and playful Portia, but Shakespeare’s insertion of her as the legal instrument of Shylock’s demise makes us question her good nature. Joplin is appropriately melancholy as Antonio, and Nicholas Rose’s brash Gratiano, paired with Miranda McGee’s randy Nerissa, provides comic relief. The best dose of that, however, comes from Davenport’s quirky, double-talking Launcelot.
Nonetheless, the lingering image from this production is Phillips as the tragic, tortured Shylock, both wronged and overcome by his own rapaciousness.
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through June 3. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.