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Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires

The Merchant of Venice
Shakespeare & Company
Review by Fred Sokol | Season Schedule

Also see David's review of West Side Story

Jonathan Epstein and John Hadden
Photo by John Dolan
Tina Packer fully pulls out many creative stops as she sculpts her current production of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Continuing in the round at the Packer Playhouse on the grounds of Shakespeare & Company through August 21st, the inventions are individually winning. Sometimes during the first portion of the show, they divert attention too significantly from primary themes. After intermission, director Packer builds the presentation to an effective, moving crescendo.

Bassanio (Shahar Isaac) is intent upon wooing the rich heiress Portia (Tamara Hickey). Helping him is his friend in Venice, a merchant named Antonio (dignified John Hadden). In order to assist, Antonio must borrow from the Jewish money lender Shylock (Jonathan Epstein). Shylock does not consider Antonio a friend and asks for a pound of flesh if the money, when due, is not forthcoming.

Shylock is not fond of Christians and his daughter Jessica (Kate Abbruzzese) elopes with one, Lorenzo (Deaon Griffin-Presley). Now having some cash, Bassanio, aided by outspoken and sometimes outrageous Graziano (Jason Asprey), pursues Portia. She happens to have three small caskets (more like boxes) of gold, silver and lead. The individual who picks the right one, which contains her image, will get her hand. Well before that moment, Portia (who has her share of suitors) is filled with lust for Bassanio.

Antonio is unable to repay the bond and, no surprise, Shylock is not a happy man. The scene at the court, late in the second act, is brilliantly conceived and enacted. Both Portia and Nerissa (Bella Merlin), her friend and waiting maid, are now in disguise. Portia, in one of Shakespeare's most impassioned speeches, says, "The quality of mercy is not strained; it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest; it blesseth him that gives and him that takes ..." Ultimately, Shylock is forbidden to shed blood and extract flesh when the court rules against his wishes.

The play concludes with a much lighter touch centering upon evident loss of wedding rings. It isn't a shock that Shakespeare ends all with couples finding happiness.

Packer strikes chords of humor, song and festivity early on. Kris Stone, designing the set, encourages the entertaining moments and enables them to occur. Stone supplies globes or spheres of varying sizes, elevated and lowered above the proceedings. Daniel Levy's original music is singular—an active and positive ingredient. Kristin Wold, providing choreography and movement, has the actors fully synchronized. The large cast celebrates early with masks during an opening scene. Packer encourages a number of the actors to play out, in a sense, as they sometimes sit in house seats next to patrons. At one point, a picture of a certain individual currently running for highest office in contemporary America is flashed at the audience.

The Merchant of Venice is many things and, in this case, Packer often accentuates comedy rather than tragedy. Still, as the three hour production evolves, it is undeniably about power. Shylock, such a pivotal figure, does not have all that much time on stage. He is far from an evil man and Epstein's embodiment is emotionally moving as he demonstrates the range of this character's struggle. A person with more than one dimension, he, in the end, suffers. He weighs money, his values, to those close to him. Epstein's Shylock is a contemplative soul. As one who attended Packer's 1998 version of this play staged outside at The Mount and starring Epstein, I recall him portraying an angrier money lender.

The quality of acting is enviably high. In addition to Epstein, Hickey as Portia and Martin as Nerissa distinguish themselves; and they so value one another. Asprey is out, about, and in everyone's face as Graziano.

Packer paints the current production with audacious strokes which are accompanied by risk. Some, as the actors play to all angles and levels, work beautifully. Other mini-scenes feel extraneous. During the first 90 minutes or so, the balance is tricky. Where is the focus? It can be difficult to fully track Shakespeare's dialogue. Finally, though, this is a rich, full, expansive theater experience.

The Merchant of Venice continues at the Tina Packer Playhouse on the campus of Shakespeare & Company, in Lenox, Massachusetts, through August 21st, 2016. For tickets, call (413) 637-3353 or visit

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