The Merchant of Venice

By - Aug 1st, 2007 02:52 pm
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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 rest of the performances here live up to the play quite well. James DeVita plays the title character who borrows money from Shylock to give to his friend Bassanio (Matt Schwader) so that he may have a chance at marrying his one true love, Portia (the charming Colleen Madden). As the play progresses, Bassanio gets ever closer to his dream as Portia plays reluctant host to a series of wealthy suitors played by frequent Rep actor Jonathan Smoots. Madden is in particularly good form here playing subtle comedy in perfect timing and DeVita plays the title role as a very rational man in very real peril. The best part of his performance is the intrinsic believability of his friendship with Bassanio. It would seem all too easy to play a friendship between two men in which one is willing to risk his life for the other’s well being as some kind of mysterious male code of honor for which there is no explanation given. Yet, DeVita’s interaction with Schwader plays out the friendship without over-exaggerating some lofty greater idea. Much of the success of the overall production relies on getting the audience to accept the act of the merchant borrowing money from Shylock in the first place. Here the interplay between DeVita and Schwader cover that ground brilliantly. VS

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,

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