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The Ancient Grudge 

A new Merchant shines with a timely setting and a standout lead

Wednesday, Mar 20 2002
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Why do Merchant of Venice again? And why do it now, in particular? Women in Time just moved into the Berkeley City Club as a resident theater company -- filling a gap left by the Aurora, which now has its own stage up the street -- and the first show the troupe has elected to mount in the City Club's little chamber is an old warhorse about race and religion by Shakespeare that most theater people can recite by heart. Why?

One possibility may be Michael Santo. There's a line of thinking that says if you have a good actor for a tough part, mount the show while you can, and Santo is a good actor. He plays a complex, well-rounded Shylock. The old Jewish moneylender seems grave and cunning in Santo's hands, without being devious and dark. The balance is not easy to strike. A '40s-era book called The Shylock Myth contains my favorite observation about Merchant and its portrait of an unforgiving Jew: "It is the sober and interesting fact that when Maurice Moscovitch played Shylock in Yiddish at the Pavilion Theatre in the East End of London sometime before he appeared in the character in English in the West End, the Jewish audiences roared with laughter at the trial scene. ... They could not take the play seriously." Santo may not pass the same difficult test in Yiddish, but at least he never plays Shylock as a cartoon. This fact is crucial: Without a sympathetic Shylock, the play would fall apart.

A good lead can't be the only reason to mount Merchant, though. The script is too heavy with race to revive on a whim. Director Sacha Reich must be up to something. She's put her actors in modern clothes, on a bare but colorfully painted platform, with three wooden crates for furniture. Antonio the merchant wears a suit and tie. Other Venetians wear casual California wear, and Portia -- in a long skirt, orange sash, and reading glasses -- resembles a practical Berkeley businesswoman who might own a bookstore on Telegraph. The early, post-feudal capitalism in the play has been made to look like the full-swing capitalism of 2002, and Shylock, with his skullcap and black clothes, looks even more like an antiquated outsider, serious and sober and therefore outré.

The conceit isn't bad. It may have been done before, but in the current national mood it feels suggestive. The Merchant of Venice is about a frivolously money-minded society struggling with a moralistic but bloody-minded Semite. How else to describe the war on terrorism? Shylock irritates Venetians the way observant Muslims unsettle Westerners: by reminding them of serious things. "An oath, an oath, I have an oath in heaven," says Shylock, insisting on his pound of flesh. The Venetians have no idea why this matters, any more than Americans can understand why a Western military presence on Saudi Arabian soil might be worth downing the World Trade Center. This parallel can't be pushed too far -- because (a) Shylock would be allied with the West in the current war, and (b) the West's intellectual tradition has a strong and serious answer to fundamentalist religion -- but it does suggest a subterranean reason for mounting the show now.

However, it's three hours long. In a space as small as the room at the City Club you need to get to the point, and The Merchant of Venice sprawls. The production comes alive in all the scenes with Shylock, but the Venetians' silliness could be established with less of Launcelot Gobbo and all the young merchants. Jennifer Wagner is alternately strong and hesitant as Portia; Paul Silverman plays a curiously bland Antonio; Jason Frazier gives us a shaded and sensitive Bassanio (Portia's favorite suitor). Any unevenness in the acting vanishes during the trial scene, which is suspenseful and potent, with Portia passing brisk justice and Shylock trembling his curved knife over Antonio's naked chest. That scene is the focus of the play, and I wish the show had been pared down to its Shylockian essence; the romantic frivolities after the trial feel anticlimactic.

Still, Women in Time does solid Shakespeare. Anyone who remembers the City Club from the Aurora's tenure will think a five-act play in that minuscule space sounds insufferable, but the new troupe has made the room less cloistered. A second door for the actors has been discovered, and a fireplace once hidden by a fake wall stands exposed. The result is more air for the audience and no hiding place at all for the lighting director, who sits with her laptop in one corner and tries to be invisible. This new theater feels postmodern -- energetic and young -- in a way that breaks ground for the City Club, and offers "chamber Shakespeare" a fighting chance.

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