He succeeds. Yes, it's still Shakespeare. But in the hands of this enthusiastic company (which is twice blessed having the irrepressible John Robb in the title role), Shylock on Valencia Street is a lively, boisterous piece of theater that challenges our expec-tations while maintaining an en-ergetically entertaining pace. Further, it creates a dramatic context for the play's incessant anti-Semitism and manages to il-luminate its central lesson: Presumably compassionate and honorable human beings are blind to their own foibles, and their capacity for self-justification is limitless no matter what the cost.
Scenic artist Stacey Mann has turned Intersection for the Arts into a Wild West saloon whose upper-level stage is dominated by a billboard announcing "The Most Excellent History of the Merchant of Venice." Down front and up against the audience are tables at which the good folk of Venice get together and do lots of drinking and smoking, while the wooden sidewalk at stage left proclaims itself the famed Rialto.
The play's two heroes are Antonio (Phil Stockton), the merchant of Shakespeare's title, and his friend Bassanio (Steven Patterson). Even though Bassanio has squandered his inheritance and is already in debt to Antonio, he has yet another request for money. It seems he has fallen in love with the heiress Portia (Eowyn Mader), whose fortune, needless to add, could restore him to wealth. He needs 3,000 ducats to settle his untidy affairs, travel to her distant home, and woo her. Antonio has no ready cash, but he gives Bassanio permission to use his name as security for a loan.
Enter Shylock (John Robb), the pariah Jew whose business is money lending. Heartily despised himself, he in turn despises Antonio for his practice of making interest-free loans, thus robbing Shylock of clients. He agrees to provide Bassanio with cash on the condition that should Antonio fail to repay it on time -- unthinkable to the blithely optimistic friends -- Shylock will be entitled to extract a pound of Antonio's flesh.
Meanwhile Portia and her maid, Nerissa (Carolyn Doyle), are receiving suitors. Portia's fate has been sealed as a condition of her inheritance. She is not free to choose a husband but must let would-be bridegrooms select from three caskets: gold, silver, and lead. The man who picks the box containing her picture wins her hand. (Trish Adair does a show-stopping turn as the prim, pompous, and unsuccessful Prince of Arragon.)
Love is blooming for everyone, it seems, except Antonio and Shylock. Nerissa falls in love with Gratiano, Bassanio's friend and traveling companion. Shylock's daughter, Jessica (April Catherall), elopes with Lorenzo (Keith Vitali) and converts to Christianity to further distance herself from her heartbroken father. And when Bassanio wins Portia's hand, triumph is in the air -- until news of Antonio's lost ships makes disaster inevitable, leading to the famous scene in which Portia disguises herself as a learned judge and manages to deprive Shylock of his prize.
What the play leaves out is that Jews of the period, having been driven out of Christian Spain, among other places, were not permitted to practice so-called gentleman's professions and were entitled to earn money only at distasteful occupations like usury. Shylock, when we meet him, is reconciled to this injustice but no less bitter for it. As played by the marvelous Robb, he exudes contempt even as he grovels. His unmasked glee (unmasked to us, but not the characters he interacts with) at the opportunity of having Antonio in his debt seems to translate physically, bending his body so that he becomes a walking pretzel. His final humiliation comes when he is literally crushed under the weight of the judgment, and his surrender is richly tragic.
Patterson's Bassanio is a revelation: He portrays a man of deep passions whose ambivalent sexuality seems both totally logical and utterly believable. His relationship with Antonio, which becomes romantic as the stakes are raised, does a great deal to illuminate Antonio's initial melancholy and to explain the merchant's foolhardy willingness to risk all for his friend.
Patterson makes an equally convincing suitor for Portia, who, thanks to Mader's gracious performance, is serenely content to marry a man whose superior she unquestionably is. Portia does not simply exhort Shylock to be merciful; she lives her own philosophy and allows her compassion to extend to men as shortsighted creatures ruinously incapable of fidelity.
Stockton's Antonio is a weak shell of a man. His problems probably stem from his apparent sexual ambivalence and are abetted by his habit of never being far from a drink. The saloon setting, and virtually everyone's (except Shylock's) party frame of mind, makes it clear how and why the principals make such disastrous decisions: They are simply not thinking clearly.
As Shylock's daughter, Jessica, Catherall gives a lovely, haunting performance. Once she realizes that conversion to Christianity does not remove the stigma of having been born Jewish, she allows her heartbreak its full flower. She will not be soothed until Lorenzo (in a nice turn by Vitali) listens and echoes back her pain.
Also notable are Dennis Matthews as a rambunctious Gratiano, Paul Silverman as the ambitious Launcelot Gobbo, and Carolyn Doyle as Portia's sparklingly intelligent companion, Nerissa.
But it's Hendrickson's direction (and some drastic cutting) that shapes the play and keeps it moving. His confident pacing allows him the luxury of highlighting certain key moments: Shylock's affecting aside explaining why he hates Antonio; Bassanio's devastation when he realizes his beloved friend could be killed to settle a debt; Portia's habitual serenity disturbed by the worry that the wrong man could win her hand.
Hendrickson doesn't put a foot wrong, whether it's with the cheerfully self-conscious use of stage effects or in placing his actors for maximum effect and then allowing them to put their personal stamp on each role. The denouement, in which loose ends are speedily tied up in the manner of classic comedy, is deservedly celebratory.
But for all its fun, the Signal Theatre Company's Shylock passes the test of what constitutes important theater: Long after the evening is over, its images persist and the unmistakable mark of ideas continues to press the consideration of timeless questions.
Shylock on Valencia Street runs through April 20 at Intersection for the Arts in S.F.; call (510) 273-9277.