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The Merchant of Venice Theatre Review - Cruelty and Mercy are Deftly Explored in Shakespeare Orange County

By Peter A. Balaskas

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After many trials, Bassanio and Portia (Ryan and Kim Shively)are finally together

(Garden Grove, CA) August 6, 2009 –Is THE MERCHANT OF VENICE proof that William Shakespeare was anti-Semitic, a product of his times? Or is it a disturbing portrait of how the Jewish people have been victims of hate and fear throughout history? Is the play’s jarring switch from romantic comedy to intense, thought-provoking drama accidental or was it Shakespeare’s intention to soften the overall tone of what is still considered to be one of his most controversial plays? Shakespeare Orange County explores these issues and delivers once again during their 18th season. The talented cast, led by SOC veteran Michael Nehring, brings much layering and texture regarding mercy, cruelty, and anti-Semitism in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE.

A young Venetian named Bassanio ( Ryan Shively) wants to marry the heiress of Belmont, Portia ( Kim Shively, Ryan’s wife). In order to do this, he needs 3000 ducats for travel and living expenses. He approaches his dearest friend, Antonio ( Carl Reggiardo), for help. But since the merchant of Venice is financially tied until his shipment comes in, Antonio grants his friend permission to take out a loan from the Jewish moneylender, Shylock ( Michael Nehring), who in turn hates Antonio for not only being a Christian, but also for lending credit with 0% interest, thereby hurting Shylock’s business. The money lender agrees to the loan, only on the condition that if Antonio cannot pay the return by three months, Shylock shall receive a pound of Antonio’s flesh, specifically his heart.  When Antonio’s shipment is supposedly lost, a war between the two cultures begins and the cruelty many of the principal characters possess is slowly revealed.

Old Gobbo (Jack Messenger) seeks his master, Shylock

At the same time, Portia---with the help of her friend, Nerissa (a wonderful Stephanie Robinson)---is trying to control the plague of suitors that are competing for her hand in marriage: her late father’s will stipulated that each suitor must choose one of three caskets---gold, silver, and lead---and whoever chooses the correct one that contains Portia’s picture will be her husband. After dealing with the boisterous Prince of Morocco and the lascivious Prince of Aragon (the scene-stealing Daniel Tobin and Gil Gonzalez, respectively), Portia then tests Bassanio, who to her relief chooses wisely. After they marry, their first act as husband and wife is to rescue Antonio from the clutches of the law, with the help of Nerissa and her new husband, Gratiano (an effectively callow and  frightening Greg Ungar). All of this results in both Portia and Nerissa disguising themselves as law officials and discovering how loyal their husbands really are.

Director Tom Bradac and his cast play the romantic part of the show beautifully. Ryan and Kim Shively exude a wonderful chemistry together as Bassanio and Portia. Ryan has incredible presence, bravado, and charm, and Kim’s grace and comic timing are impeccable, especially when disguised as a doctor of the law. When Bassanio takes their love for granted at the very end of the play, Kim’s Portia retaliates with a vengeance when she strips him of his pride and ego. Both of their emotional ranges are dynamic, enhancing their romantic nature even more.

Antonio (Carl Reggiardo) contemplates Shylock's offer

But the real challenge comes to the portrayal of Shylock and his enemies, the Christian merchants of Venice. Reading the text by itself, Shylock is clearly made as the villain, with one important exception: Shylock’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” soliloquy. Here, we see the character’s humanity, which serves as the foundation of how a man sinks into hatred and prideful cruelty after becoming the target of ridicule and whose family is ripped apart when he drives his own daughter, Jessica (a tragic Jennifer Finley), into the arms of one of the Christian merchants. And it is this pride and merciless nature that leads to Shylock’s downfall. But this descent must show his humanity and Michael Nehring’s portrayal of the Jewish moneylender is one of the most heartbreaking in the entire show. Dressed in exotic robes and full-bearded, Nehring’s presence is very much like a powerful lion. But it is his discourse and quiet eloquence that wins every time he is on stage. Past performances of Shylock I have seen at other venues often led to mad, scene-chewing outbursts. Nehring proves that less is more. We feel the anger, betrayal, rage, and eventual defeat of this tragic figure.

Equally moving is Reggiardo’s Antonio. Although at times he was too soft-spoken where some of his lines were missed, his presence is just as powerful as Nehring’s. Their scenes together are electrifying. But when he sees Shylock’s downfall, as well as how flighty Bassanio and Gratiano are regarding their marriage vows and their extreme hostility towards the Jewish moneylender, Antonio is filled with uncertainty and regret. He begins and ends the play with “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad,” which symbolizes how pride can affect anyone of all denominations, leading to emotional emptiness and despair. And Shakespeare Orange County examines these themes with powerful results.

Shylock (Michael Nehring) talks about his financial bond with Antonio, as Lancelot (Alyssa Bradac) and Jessica (Jennifer Finley) look on

The Merchant of Venice opened August 6 (Thursday night) and runs to August 22 (Saturday night)

Tickets: $32---714-590-1575

Shakespeare Orange County
The Festival Amphitheatre, 12740 Main Street, Garden Grove, CA
Photos by: Mark Samala

Published on Dec 31, 1969

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