The Merchant of Venice is, at its root, a play about rules and culture. Each scene is an exploration of contract and expectation. Antonio (Richard S. Iglewski) is bound by the particulars of his deal with Shylock (Robert Dorfman) and Portia (Michelle O’Neill) is restricted by the marriage details left behind by her father. Bassanio (Ron Menzel) is obligated by his friendship to Antonio and Jessica (Christine Weber) is compelled by the religion and customs of her new marriage.
The drama of the play arises from tensions of constraint. Though the denouement suggests resolution and settling of these debts, the play is profoundly tragic. The tragedy finds its source in large part to the anti-Semitism of the characters and time. Dowling exploits this deep and resonating sadness in this compelling production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
It is impossible to look away from Robert Dorfman’s Shylock. Enigmatic and energetic, the character lobbies and rages. He is both charming and revolting, and when the court forces his conversion to Christianity in its “mercy,” grief is unavoidable. Dorfman’s hands stitch the air, finding reason and constructing the materials of his vengeance. His significant experience locating the narrative core of Shakespeare’s plays is in clear presence.
Prompts for Shylock’s anger are easy to discern. All the other characters exhibit an unapologetic loathing for Jews and a special malice toward Shylock. When his only daughter runs away and marries a Christian, his indignation knows no limits. With a quiet focus, Dorfman delivers those famous lines: “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, will we not die? If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”
His revenge is to demand a pound of Antonio’s flesh for the breach of contract. Richard S. Iglewski’s Antonio is nervous and brittle. His generosity seems less heart-felt than duty-bound. Iglewski’s choice to plumb the benign murkiness of Antonio results in a perfect foil to Shylock. There is a lack of wit in his portrayal that is spot on, illuminating a religious tension taken for granted by all the characters, a religious tension no one is interested in resolving.
Some might recognize Michelle O’Neill from The Devil’s Own or The Pelican Brief. She brings her tremendous talent to this Portia as well. Her Portia is strong and smart without succumbing to the dullness of many portrayals. O’Neill’s handling of the character is deft. Able to transition elegantly from light comedy (always harder than it looks) to meaningful expressions of Shakespeare’s most difficult lines, O’Neill is riveting.
Any weakness of this production is a weakness of the source material. The playfulness between Jessica and Lorenzo (Matthew Amendt) in the park late in the play is distracting after the keenness of the court scene, and the movement to the end seems long. These are both choices of structure by the bard himself. The set design is fantastic and the too little acknowledged extras in the play contribute to an engaging staging of The Merchant of Venice.
Michael Opperman is a local writer. His work has recently been published in the Coe Review, New Hampshire Review and Rain Taxi.