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THEATER REVIEW: "The Merchant of Venice" 

Rochester Shakespeare Players' "The Merchant of Venice"

It has been a big year for Rochester Community Players' Shakespeare Players shingle. Large crowds turned out this summer for the annual Shakespeare in the Park production in Highland Bowl (this year it was a very solid production of "Othello"). The Players launched the Rochester Shakespeare Literary Society, a monthly discussion group meant to prepare audiences for upcoming Shakespeare productions in Rochester and Western New York. And the group is currently in the midst of an expanded theater season (with shows in fall, spring, and summer) with its current production of "The Merchant of Venice" at MuCCC.

"Merchant" is a wonderful show featuring talented actors, engaging direction, and an alternately charming and controversial story, and I regret that I didn't get a chance to review the play earlier in its run.

"Merchant" follows young Bassanio, a Venetian who has blown his family's estate, as he seeks to woo and then wed the beautiful (and loaded) heiress Portia. To subsidize his journey, Bassanio reaches out to his longtime friend Antonio, a merchant who has bailed him out multiple times before. But Antonio's assets are presently wrapped up in multiple trade deals all out to sea, so he tells Bassanio that he'll act as his guarantor if Bassanio can find a lender. That ends up being Shylock, who is infamous for his aggressive lending terms, and is persecuted by most of Christian Venice due to his Jewish faith. Antonio and Shylock dislike each other intensely, but go into business on Bassanio's behalf, with the terms being that if the loan is not repaid by a certain date, Antonio owes Shylock a pound of his flesh.

Although the Elizabethan language remains unchanged in the MuCCC production, director John R. Jaeger has given the play a modern feel, from the slick contemporary fashions to its classical incidental music mixed with hip-hop beats. Attempts at modernizing Shakespeare can go very wrong very fast, but everything worked with this show - none of it felt desperate or patronizing. The mostly cosmetic changes worked with the enthusiastic, mostly young cast to make for a fresh-feeling production.

Even with the glossy coat, Jaeger does not shy away from any of the play's themes, including its more difficult ones. "Merchant" is known for its controversial treatment of Jewish characters, specifically Shylock, who is repeatedly referred to as less-than-human or soulless by the Christian characters. The dramatic courtroom scene, which includes several classic speeches concerning equality, humanity, and mercy, is riveting, and at times uncomfortable, as the enraged characters in the gallery practically spit the word "Jew." This production doesn't even attempt to mitigate that level of bigotry, although its depiction of Shylock is undeniably sympathetic for most of the show. I left struck by how a play written more than 400 years ago can still capture such complicated human emotions.

Not that it's all about hate speech and revenge. The heavier topics in "Merchant" are balanced by some wonderful comic moments. The scenes with Portia and her suitors are hilarious, with hammy caricatures by familiar faces. Even some of the mistaken-identity bits, largely implausible to modern audiences, elicit some chuckles thanks to deft execution. But it's the little details that prove how well-directed and well-rehearsed this show is. Brief pantomime bits during set changes and some silent reactions by supporting characters demonstrate that the cast and crew were actively thinking about how to make the most of every second on the stage.

While most of the dozen-plus cast members are terrific in general, there are some standouts. Ray Salah flawlessly executes the challenging role of Shylock. Every moment of his performance felt true, from his snide, under-the-breath comments to Antonio in the first act, to his despondency over learning of his great loss, to his resolute demands for justice. Judy Molner is a delight as Portia, making the sometimes cumbersome Elizabethan dialogue sound effortless, while bringing serious gravity to her more dramatic scenes in Act II. James Heath shares excellent chemistry with Molner, while his scenes with Ken Dauer (Antonio) hint at an interesting subtext of their own. Brad Craddock is exuberant as the quasi-fool Gratiano, while Kate Sherman slyly snatches attention in her role as the maid Nerissa. Lastly, credit to set designer Mark Casey, who has created the largest and most ambitious set I've ever seen on the typically sparse MuCCC stage.

"The Merchant of Venice"

Through November 19

By Rochester Community Players

MuCCC, 142 Atlantic Ave.

$5-$15 |

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