The Merchant of Venice

Few plays have retained their power to disturb audiences as has "The Merchant of Venice" across four centuries. The very impossibility of divining Shakespeare's intent in creating the Jewish character of Shylock has made this unpalatable comedy vulnerable to accounts ranging from the benign to the virulent; it's been cited as a plea for tolerance and employed as a tool of the Nazi propaganda machine.

Few plays have retained their power to disturb audiences as has “The Merchant of Venice” across four centuries. The very impossibility of divining Shakespeare’s intent in creating the Jewish character of Shylock has made this unpalatable comedy vulnerable to accounts ranging from the benign to the virulent; it’s been cited as a plea for tolerance and employed as a tool of the Nazi propaganda machine.

While there can be no doubt about Shylock’s central role as the despised villain in a romantic comedy, the source and depth of his meanness is subject to considerable interpretation.

At the Public, Ron Leibman is giving the most electrifying performance of the season as a Shylock fueled from the outset by resentment and rage against the Christians who mock him and scorn his religion, yet who will nonetheless use him. Shylock has their number and they have his, and the result is much raising of voices, flying of spittle and rolling of eyes.

This is clear when Antonio (Byron Jennings) arranges the loan from Shylock that will finance Bassanio’s (Jay Goede) courtship of Portia (Laila Robins). Noting that Antonio has spat on him and denounced him publicly, Shylock nevertheless agrees to lend the money; Antonio accepts, not with his celebrated humility and generosity of spirit, but instead with the hypocritical boldness of the socially secure.

I’ll spit on you again and worse, he tells Shylock, cautioning him not to mistake the transaction for an act of friendship. Shylock is an outsider and, like all the outsiders in the play, he is treated with unrestrained contempt.

Nowhere is Shylock’s anger vented more stunningly than in his third-act speech, “Hath not a Jew eyes?” For Leibman and his young director, Barry Edelstein, this is no wan ecumenical plea.

It’s machine-gun fire, spat out with the blistering force that only years of pent-up rage could conjure. And it seems exactly right; as critic John Gross points out in his fascinating book-length study “Shylock,” the words “are wrenched from Shylock; they have the stamp of anger and spontaneity.”

Leibman’s Shylock makes others of recent memory — notably Dustin Hoffman’s on Broadway in 1989 — seem not only pale but misguided bycomparison. Following his triumph as Roy Cohn in “Angels in America,” Leibman makes an equally strong impression as a much older, more enduring villain.

In other respects, too, this production — the 27th in the Shakespeare marathon begun by Joseph Papp late in 1987 — marks a high point for the New York Shakespeare Festival. Jennings is a youthful yet patrician Antonio, and while Goede starts out too puppyish as Bassanio, he grows considerably in the part; by the time Bassanio wins Portia, Goede has won the audience as well.

That’s less the case with Robins, who changes from pouty hauteur in Portia’s scenes with those less fortunate suitors from Arragon (Walker Jones) and Morocco (Robert Jason Jackson), to way over the top in her disguise as the wise Roman doctor, Balthazar. Some restraint, both vocally and histrionically, would serve her better, as would a more flattering wig.

Still, the courtroom scene, in which Portia/Balthazar decrees that Shylock may have his pound of flesh but not a drop of Christian blood, builds to a palpable tension — no mean trick given the scene’s familiarity.

Other standouts in the generally good ensemble include Earle Hyman, doubling as Tubal and the Duke; Tom Nelis as the clown Lancelot; Nina Landey as Shylock’s unfaithful daughter, Jessica.

John Arnone’s design is spare and beautiful, outlined with long copper troughs to suggest the canals and sliding panels that move the action from Venice to Belmont, with help from Mimi Jordan Sheridan’s intricate lighting scheme. Catherine Zuber’s costumes range from slightly foppish for Antonio and Bassanio’s quartet of friends to elegant spins on Renaissance fashions, particularly for the women.

Preparing to carve out the pound of flesh he’s convinced he has won, Shylock brazenly paints a yellow circle around Antonio’s heart — the same yellow circle he must wear on his garments and which his daughter has happily renounced. It’s a shocking gesture, one that anticipates the cruel decree handed down a moment later that to save his life, Shylock must convert to Christianity.

This is no soothing evening of theater. While some of Edelstein’s choices are arguable, he and Leibman have pulled the pin out of the grenade that is “The Merchant of Venice.” Watch out.

The Merchant of Venice

(Joseph Papp Public Theater/Anspacher Theater, New York; 275 seats; $ 35 top)

Production: A New York Shakespeare Festival presentation of the play by Shakespeare in five acts (one intermission). Director, Barry Edelstein.

Creative: Set, John Arnone; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Mimi Jordan Sheridan; sound, Darren Clark; original music, Michael Torke; producer, George C. Wolfe; associate producers, Rosemarie Tichler, Kevin Kline. Opened Feb. 5, 1995; reviewed Feb. 2. Running time: 2 hours, 50 min.

Cast: With: Byron Jennings (Antonio), Jay Goede (Bassanio), Paul Mullins (Salerio) , Billy Porter (Solanio), Peter Jay Fernandez (Gratiano), Willis Sparks (Lorenzo), Laila Robins (Portia), Gail Grate (Nerissa), Ron Leibman (Shylock), Nina Landey (Jessica), Earle Hyman (Tubal/Duke of Venice), Walker Jones (Old Gobbo/Arragon/Stephano), Robert Jason Jackson (Morocco/Jailer), Tom Nelis (Lancelot); Cornell Womack (Leonardo/Jailer), Peter Rini (Balthazar/Jailer).

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