Brownshirts and yarmulkes

The Merchant of Venice

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Jay Michaels
Genesis Repertory Ensemble
Jan Hus Playhouse
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by Julie Halpern

Themes of anti-Semitism in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice take on a new urgency in Genesis Repertory's powerful new production, set in 1938 Nazi Germany. Opening with Yom Kippur prayers, and culminating with Kristallnacht a few months later, anti-Semitism, Jewish self-loathing, confusion, and skewed loyalties reach fever pitch. Unfortunately, Shakespeare's language and aspects of the play not dealing with anti-Semitism, such as the casket scene and the sensuality of daily life on the Rialto, were diminished, with Jewish or Nazi themes taking precedence throughout the evening. Director Jay Michaels and his talented cast are to be commended for taking on such an emotionally wrenching project, which made effective use of Yiddish, Hebrew and German for immediacy but created a clash of Venetian and German sensibilities, never fully realizing either.

Most of the characters were Nazis or Nazi sympathizers. The opening scene - revealing Germans Bassanio (David Look) and Antonio (Travis Taylor) planning Bassanio's wooing strategy to win the wealthy Portia - was chilling in juxtaposition to the gentle Yom Kippur prayers of Shylock and his fellow congregants, at the other end of the stage. Portia was a decadent German vamp, game for any adventure, but Nell Gwynn's powerfully seductive portrayal failed to capture the gentle, thoughtful side of Portia's nature, playing her more as a madcap heiress than a respected noblewoman. Her confidant, Nerissa (Milda De Voe) was also a glamorous, fun-loving adventuress. De Voe and Michael Fortunato's ardent Gratiano set off erotic fireworks whenever they were on stage together. Shylock's self-hating daughter, Jessica (Heidi Hecker) went as far as marrying a Nazi Lorenzo (an intensely appealing Kevin Colbert), and Hecker's portrayal created a riveting evolution from a shy Jewish girl to a Nazi hausfrau, particularly telling in her coldness at Shylock's trial.

Josh Blumenfeld's Shylock beautifully captured the tortured, abused, and often maddening Shylock, in an exquisitely balanced performance - painfully fragile in the courtroom scene, yet perpetuating the most repugnant Jewish stereotype when fretting over his ducats. Shylock's servant, Launcelot, was disturbingly embodied as an ignorant, lower-class thug, in a stunning performance by Brian M. Brewer.

Travis Taylor was a handsome, sensual, vaguely disquieting Antonio. David Look radiated leading-man charm and chemistry with Gwynn as Bassanio. Tim Browning as the Prince of Morocco and Robert Saunders as The Baron of Arrogon were uproarious as Portia's Hitleresque suitors in the casket scene.

Sid Hammond and Sky Walters's set conveyed the cold desperation of Nazi German streetlife, with jarring lighting designed by Adam Bair. Popular German songs of the period like "The Happy Wanderer" and "Lili Marlene," and the national anthem, "Deutschland Uber Alles," were provided by sound designer Michael Fortunato. The uncredited costumes were very striking, particularly the luxurious women's gowns. With Neil Kleid, Ian Tomashik, and Paul James Bowen.
Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Set: 2
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2000 Julie Halpern