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The Merchant of Venice

Reviewed by Irene Backalenick

Presented by the Jean Cocteau Repertory at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre, 330 Bowery, NYC, Oct. 16-Dec. 14.

The battle rages on. Was Shakespeare anti-Semitic, or was he not? It all depends on the Shylock portrayal. This time around, in a fine new production at the Jean Cocteau Repertory, it is not the issue. Director Eve Adamson pointedly does not make a judgment, but gives her attention to the text as written. She combines the elements of fairytale, romantic comedy, and melodrama inherent in the play, shifting smoothly from one mood to the other as the story unfolds. It is enhanced by Adamson's considerable skill as a lighting designer. While harsh lighting heightens the dramatic moments, a soft glow turns the final scene, with all couples reconciled, into a kind of "Midsummer Night's Dream."

As to performances: all key characters make significant contributions, with Craig Smith bringing far more humanity to the title role than one usually sees, and with Elise Stone creating a Portia who grows from flip girl to commanding woman.

But it is Harris Berlinsky's Shylock who is pivotal. He gives this role stature, neither mocking Shylock nor milking the role for sympathy. There is not an ounce of sentimentality—nor an ounce of likeability, for that matter. This is a tough, shrewd man, one who has learned to live, and even thrive, within the hostile Venetian community.

But when his daughter Jessica (that bitch!) runs off with his money and jewels, strewing them about carelessly in her new Christian world, he turns bitter. Perhaps he could forgive the loss of ducats, but not his wife's ring, which Jessica swaps for a pet monkey. "I had it of Leah as a bachelor," he mourns.

He will have his revenge. And Antonio, the merchant of Venice, proves to be the most convenient target. Why does Shylock seek revenge? Is it the immediate wrongs—or 1,000 years of European anti-Semitism? Probably both, as spelled out in this admirable portrayal.

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