The MET's Modern 'Merchant'

Graziano (Durante, left) and Bassanio (Mandel) strike out with their respective wives, Nerissa (Koopman) and Portia (Beck).

Widely regarded as one of Shakespeare's most controversial comedies, "The Merchant of Venice" is known for both its brilliance and its anti-Semitic characterization of Shylock, the main character. Originally popular with medieval audiences partially because of its anti-Semitic content, the play was given a more modern spin with Jacob Adler's portrayal of Shylock as a more sympathetic character, rather than just a scheming stereotype. Working from Adler's reinvention of the character, director Joseph Beck goes one step further, preserving Shakespeare's words while updating the setting to early 20th century New York. Beck completes the modernization with an infusion of vaudevillian music and comedy, a risky venture that works beautifully, taking the play from its academic confines and turning it into a bona fide comedy.    

One of Shakespeare's more famous characters, Shylock (David Combs) is a Jewish moneylender whose life unravels over the course of the play. In order to fund a trip to meet Portia (Leesa Beck), the girl of his dreams, Bassanio (Dan Mandel) enlists the help of his wealthier friend Antonio (Jonathan Winn). Confident that he can turn a profit before the bond comes due, Antonio takes out a loan from Shylock, his enemy. The forfeiture? A pound of flesh closest to Antonio's heart.

Meanwhile, Bassanio's friend Lorenzo (Skip Moore) conspires with Graziano (Jonathan Pier Durante), Salario (Rachel Levy) and Salanio (Katt Masterson) to elope with Shylock's beautiful daughter Jessica (Olivia Killingsworth), slipping away before Shylock catches on.

Arriving safely at Portia's abode, Bassanio solves the puzzle that thwarted her earlier suitors and proves himself worthy of Portia's love and fortune. But their celebration is cut short by news of Antonio's misfortunes. Unable to complete his transactions, Antonio's bond becomes forfeit and Shylock demands his flesh. With the Venetian courts having little power to stop Shylock from claiming what's owed, Bassanio and Portia are Antonio's only hope.           

Lorenzo (Moore) and Jessica (Killingsworth) gaze at the stars.

Brimming with love, duplicity, malice and misery, "The Merchant of Venice" often seems to be considered a comedic play solely in the academic definition. Cruelty abounds, and though there are moments of lighthearted comedy, much of the laughter was at Shylock's suffering. In Beck's hands, the comedy is more straightforward, and often more innocent. Beck pumps up the comedic moments with vaudevillian pandemonium - complete with comedy duos, physical comedy and dance numbers - but backs off during the serious portions, reigning in the chaos appropriately so as not to trivialize the dramatic thrust of the play.  Beck keeps us laughing, allowing him to subtly explore issues of prejudice and cultural assimilation without appearing preachy or pedantic. 

The source material is as good as it gets, but even coupled with Beck's able direction, this vaudevillian adaptation owes its success largely to the actors, who provide that crucial spark of vibrant life. Levy and Masterson are the comedic heart of the show, hamming it up like a female Abott and Costello and bringing a jolt of energy to the show each time they take the stage. Winn captures Antonio with a quiet dignity, carrying himself with an air of confidence that lends credence to his nobility.

The supporting cast also does an admirable job, but the show belongs to the trio of Beck, Mandel and Combs. Beck lights up the stage as Portia. Sparkling with playful charm and erudition, she leaves no doubt about why Portia is desired by every man. But she's also strikingly human, as capable of love as anyone, and the onstage chemistry she shares with Mandel is magical. Mandel isn't lacking in charisma either, giving a convincing turn as a slick businessman, suave romantic and loyal friend. He's likeable without seeming insincere, and equally at home whether playing opposite Portia or Antonio.

Shylock (Combs, left) seals his deal with Antonio (Winn) as Bassanio looks on.

Combs gives a tour de force performance as Shylock, seething with rage, breaking down in defeat and gloating over his victory - all with equal aplomb. Beneath it all, he imbues the character with honesty and a fragile humanity, making him a sympathetic character despite his sometimes atrocious intentions.  His performance, along with Beck's adaptation of the material, reminds us that there is always another layer to each story, each person.

Just as the gold, silver and lead chests in Portia's mansion belie the contents they possess, the surface appearances and perceptions of people don't tell the whole story. "The Merchant of Venice" shows that ultimately, identity is more than a mere derivative of the stereotypes one is known by, the length of their nose or the trinkets they accumulate - it's about what lies within.  

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