Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Merchant of Venice, Ohio Shakespeare Festival

(Robert Hawkes as Shylock, brandishing his flesh extractor.)

Everyone loves a good courtroom scene where clever arguments are launched, the tables are turned and the bad guy comes up a loser. And with all due respect to Perry Mason and the books of John Grisham, nobody has ever done it better than Shakespeare, in his climactic scene in The Merchant of Venice.

Shylock argues, persuasively if not compassionately, for his “pound of flesh” from Antonio, and Antonio’s lawyer (Portia in disguise) at first agrees with Shylock and then attacks with telling legalities. And it’s all done with style in this Ohio Shakespeare Festival production, directed with brisk assuredness by Terry Burgler.

Trouble is, it’s not very easy to identify who the real bad guys are, in the court or elsewhere. And that’s a good thing. Indeed, nothing about this play has ever been easy, since it’s a romantic comedy in which the most compelling character, the Jewish usurer Shylock, is written as a monster with what many have claimed are definite anti-Semitic touches by the playwright. Are you laughing yet?

In the keystone role of Shylock, Robert Hawkes is the anti-Pacino, portraying a soft-spoken man with slumped shoulders and gentle gestures, but hardened by a spine composed of hardened, annealed anger. Hawkes’ Shylock is wedded to the hate he has developed over years of religious discrimination in Venice, and he wears it comfortably. And that makes his stubborn insistence on vengeance, by legally carving up Antonio, even more disturbing than if he were ranting and foaming.

Meanwhile, the humorous side of the play is handled with dispatch. As Portia, the rich heiress who is continually auditioning potential mates, Lara Knox is as enticing as she is clever. She is attended by Nerissa (Tess Burgler), a woman who adds her own layer of witty commentary. The scene when two hapless prince/suitors (Derrick Winger and Mark Stoffer) try to select the right treasure chest and thereby win the hand of Portia is a delight. 

The merchant in the title, Antonio, is given a solid if not particularly magnetic treatment by David McNees, and Joe Pine makes Bassanio a very sympathetic suitor for Portia.

Inevitably, the comedy and drama sometimes clash—it’s hard to chuckle about the "missing ring" lark after Shylock has been divested of his money and property and forced to become a Christian(!). Especially if you view him, justifiably, as more victim than perp.

It all just gives you more to haggle about on your trip home from Stan Hywet. But make sure, on your trip there, to leave early enough to see the Greenshow, directed by Ms. Burgler, that starts a half-hour before curtain. This time, the featured piece is a mash-up of Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story, complete with finger cymbals. It’s a hoot.

The Merchant of Venice
Through August 19, produced by the Ohio Shakespeare Festival at Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, 714 N. Portage Path, Akron, 330-673-8761,

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