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"Merchant of Venice" questions remain

"Merchant of Venice" questions remain

For hundreds of years, scholars, students and audiences have questioned whether Shakespeare’s “The M

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Click here for Gazette theater writer Bill Buell's preview.

For hundreds of years, scholars, students and audiences have questioned whether Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” is one long anti-Semitic rant with brief commentary on the call of justice or another comedy of relationships where a resourceful woman tricks and tests her man by wearing some pants. In the current production onstage at Albany Civic Theater, nothing is done to alleviate this debate; instead, it brings to the discussion more questions that demand answers.

The evening begins with a Shakespeare primer. A hearty, Elizabethan-period-clad thespian informs the audience of what is to come. In this production, we will explore how Shakespeare wrote his scripts, how the actors learned their roles, why the lights won’t dim this evening, why you may see some actors in more than one role, the type of sets used, the music used in the original production ... simply stated, the director’s notes are staged.

Director Dan Stott meticulously provides the background as to the “why” of the production — so much so that the story takes a back seat. Staged in Elizabethan period clothing but presented with anachronistic twists of the present, we are consistently taken out of the story with touches of whimsy. And while Shakespeare always included topics from the present when his plays were first produced, it is doubtful that “The Taming of the Shrew” was staged at the Globe Theater in bearskins and loincloths with cave drawings of Elizabeth I adorning the walls. Updating Shakespeare can be good, but you can’t just go halfway with the idea. Having Shylock singing Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” during one of the two intermissions, while doubly ironic, may be fine if the story were set at Woodstock in 1969 but seems wrong for Venice 1503 — even during an interval. One should find a time period in which to set the story and stick with it. The Jets and Sharks of “West Side Story” were not adorned in pantaloons and doublets when they rumbled.

For those whose memory may need a boost, this is the play where a malcontented moneylender, the Jewish Shylock, demands his pound of flesh to settle a debt from a man he despises, Antonio, a devout and love-struck Christian. To save the day, Portia, a clever woman, dons trousers and a faux law degree and barrels into court to wow us all with her legal ken and Christian morals. Preaching about mercy (while showing little), she saves her boyfriend’s boyfriend and her own relationship, helps damn the unsaved and creates a firm financial future with someone else’s money for a newly married couple she just met. And Portia does all this without crib notes. Politics in her future seem imminent.

This is a tremendously difficult play to produce. The correct tone is critical. Shakespeare labeled this play a comedy; in fact, Shylock was originally played as a clown or fool. This play raises serious issues that plague and trouble us — religion vs. morals, law vs. justice, passion and revenge. And while there are some light comic moments, the play is conversely lumbered with some outrageously unpleasant rants on religion and law that make you question the ethics of the time, then and now. It’s hard to find humor when a man has been told he must forfeit his religion and his beliefs and yet, when that happens at the end of the play, the “victors” laugh. So much for mercy and compassion.

The cast does the best it can with the challenging material. Some find ease with the language and cadence while others don’t and overcompensate with cartoonish distractions. Stott’s staging is simple and fine with emphasis on the humor, which will suit most tastes. The costumes and set are solid and of the period; the manners and music are not.

Perhaps the cast summed it up best as they tore into song with the Rolling Stones’ signature cry “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” at the end of the play. While this troupe of players finds all the enthusiasm and energy that Shakespeare requires, the evening falters, so like the “gentle rain that falls,” I follow Portia’s advice and unstrain my mercy and let this one fade from view.

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