The Merchant of Venice
The American Player Theatre delves into sticky realms of ambiguity with its production of what is arguably one of Shakespeare’s most questionable plays. The Merchant of Venice concerns money lent to a man by a Jewish moneylender named Shylock. If the money is not paid back in a timely fashion, Shylock has the legal right to one pound of the debtor’s flesh. It’s not an overriding problem unless one happens to be exquisitely sensitive, but there are enough allusions to anti-Semitism in the script to make modern audiences cringe.
The APT glides its way gracefully through what is essentially a courtroom drama with as much style as it can muster. This includes some of the best acting in the state filling a comfy outdoor theatre in the middle of a wooded area west of Madison. Sadly, however, the biggest disappointment in the acting here is James Ridge in that oh-so-central performance as the Jewish moneylender, Shylock. It should be pointed out before this review goes any further that James Ridge is a phenomenal actor. In 2005, his performance as Tartuffe was exquisite and insightful – something of a revelation. This past year as the title character in Dickens In America with Next Act (which he picks up again this summer with the APT and next December with the Madison Rep), Ridge put forth a spellbinding, highly charismatic performance. In light of these recent successes, Ridge’s performance as Shylock is a colossal disappointment. Ridge affects an accent, which may serve to distinguish a sense of otherworldliness in the villain, but it never quite feels natural enough to make the character entirely believable. Ridge goes a long way toward making up for this lack of realism by playing the role sympathetically. We see depth in Ridge’s performance as Shylock. His motivations for behaving as cold as he is seem firmly defined in Ridge’s portrayal, but the larger picture of who the character is never fully resolves, leaving this production’s Shylock feeling like more of a shallow villain than Ridge’s efforts should have allowed.
The American Players Theatre’s production of The Merchant Of Venice runs now through October 5 in Spring Green. Tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at 608-588-2361 or online at www.playinthewoods.org,