“If you prick us, do we not bleed?” cries Shylock, the iconic character in Shakespeare’s most enthralling and unsettling comedies, The Merchant of Venice. “And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” he continues in that same famous speech, as he, the other inhabitants of Venice, and Belmont seek life, love, justice, fortune, and mercy in Trinity Shakespeare Festival’s second homerun of a play (along with Merry Wives of Windsor) in their summer repertory.
Director Stephen Fried creates a provocative mood piece that is visually stunning, thanks to Brian Clinnin’s shadowy set, made up of a semi-circular seascape painting that raises and lowers and tall, burnished pillars, and Michael Skinner’s simple, but beautifully executed lights, in a production that is acted with polished verse. Fried’s success with the material comes as no surprise. The director delivered the best live Shakespeare I have ever seen as a critic (Much Ado About Nothing at Trinity), and helmed last year’s superb Macbeth.
The plot (for those of you who missed high school English) centers on an economically bustling, but divided Venice, where the animosity between Christians and Jews is bubbling to the surface, taking shape in the play in the form of Jewish money-lender Shylock (J. Brent Alford). Shylock seizes the opportunity provided by the cultural moment to exact revenge on his hated and hating, cash poor Christian rival Antonio (Richard Haratine). Elsewhere, inBelmont, the wealthy and eligible bachelorette Portia (Trisha Miller) must choose a husband based on the arcane wishes of her deceased father.
The connection between those two worlds is that Antonio must borrow money from Shylock to help his fortune-hunting friend Bassanio (Chuck Huber) woo Portia. Add in some deadly collateral for the loan, a runaway, jewel-stealing, an eloping daughter, an irreverent clown (a hilarious Blake Hackler), some nifty cross-dressing, and a crackling court scene, and you have edgy high comedy at its finest.
The only quibble I had with the Trinity came from the casting of Huber as Bassanio (you may remember Huber from Stage West’s Jeeves in the Morning). The actor is perhaps a bit too long in the tooth to play a believable suitor to the more youthful Portia. He also comes off as cold and aloof with his betrothed. Perhaps this is to highlight his strong attachment to Antonio, but it makes Portia’s infatuation with him seem beyond bizarre.
Shylock’s part is relatively small, 360 lines, but his powerful speeches resonate throughout the play. It is nearly an impossible role to pull off, as he is written in equal parts as moving victim and clichéd villain. Kudos to Alford for his even-tempered, yet potent portrayal
And yet, while Shylock is an unforgettable character, The Merchant of Venice has always been Portia’s play, and that is especially true here. It does not hurt when you have the amazing Trisha Miller in this plum of a part that is second only to Rosalind and Olivia for top Shakespearean heroines. Miller’s lady ofBelmont is lovely, giddy and girlish, yet regal and sharply intelligent when she needs to be. She even highlights Aaron Patrick Turner’s dazzling costumes in a charming dressing scene. And David Coffee delivers a spicy surprise with his portrayal of the Prince of Aragon (one of Portia’s ill-fated suitors). He slays the audience with laughter in a part that is usually a throw-away.
Finally, at the end, Haratine delivers one of the most poignant moments in a play rife with them as he slowly departs the stage after all the rest have gone, and he ponders his “good news.” Chilling, dark, and oh-so-good.
Photo: J. Brent Alford as Shylock