The Old Globe stages Shakespeare's merry sport, The Merchant of Venice

The wealthy women of Belmont don finery from the if-you-must-ask-you-can’t-afford-it rack.
  • The wealthy women of Belmont don finery from the if-you-must-ask-you-can’t-afford-it rack.

Miles Anderson does amazing things as Shylock in the Old Globe’s Merchant of Venice, but his most understated choice sets the tone of the play.

Bassanio wants to wed Portia, “a lady richly left/ And she is fair” (note his cash-first priority). But Bassanio needs money to qualify as a suitor. So, he asks lifelong friend Antonio for a loan. Antonio’s helped him before and probably should know better, since Bassanio squandered the last and lived above his means, “like a willful youth.”

Antonio is the title character in Shakespeare’s play. And Bassanio will always be, let’s say, the title character in Antonio’s heart. Since all his investments are on the high seas, Antonio the Christian must negotiate with Shylock, a Venetian Jew. But Antonio has often berated Shylock in public. Last Wednesday he called Shylock a “misbeliever” and “cutthroat dog,” then spit on him.

And how has Shylock reacted, even when Antonio “did void your rheum upon my beard”? He has turned the other cheek. And bore the vehemence “with a patient shrug.”

When asked for 3000 ducats, most Shylocks seethe. Sure, they fume, centuries of abuse backing their play: take the loot but if you don’t pay back in three months I want a POUND OF YOUR FLESH!!!

Miles Anderson’s Shylock veers in a gentle direction. Up till now he’s been a sprightly roller with the punches, not at ease with his surroundings but able to cope — even, apparently, to forgive. “I want to be friends with you,” he tells Antonio straight-faced, “and have your love.”

As he defines the contract, an idea dawns on Anderson: instead of charging interest, he’ll propose a “merry sport.” He’ll take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Anderson says it as a whim, the giddy equivalent of an interest-free loan.

Which comes true. When it’s time to extract the pound, Shylock has been so loathed, exploited, and persecuted he can no longer turn the other cheek.

The Merchant of Venice contains brutal anti-Semitism. Make no mistake. But what is it pro-? If it’s for Christianity, then it has an embedded critique of un-Christian behavior, from Gratiano’s bug-eyed bigotry to Antonio’s saliva-shots, to almost the complete absence of tolerance in Venice or Belmont.

And when her suitors must choose the correct casket to win her hand — gold, silver, or lead — aren’t the rules a mite extreme? If a suitor makes the wrong choice, he can “never speak to a lady afterward in way of marriage.” There’s even the suggestion of lifelong celibacy. Portia’s late, “holy” father set the terms, which imply that the losers must never spawn even a pound of flesh.

At court, disguised as a lawyer, Portia asks, “Which is the merchant here? And which the Jew?” Good question. She also adds, a few lines later, “in the course of justice none of us/ Should see salvation.”

In order to resolve the legal dilemma, Portia not only upholds the letter of the law, she takes it at its word.

Director Adrian Noble has staged Merchant, often brilliantly, as a comedy of bad manners. No one, not even Portia, could punch H on the spiritual elevator and ascend nonstop to Heaven. And once aroused, Shylock threatens to tear down the confining walls of comedy.

Noble has set the play in the late 19th Century. Deirdre Clancy’s excellent costumes create a Gilded Age of top hats (even for the commodities brokers), black frock coats, and Victorian cutaways. The wealthy women of Belmont don finery from the if-you-must-ask-you-can’t-afford-it rack. Dan Moses Schreier’s background music enhances, though it becomes excessively melodramatic — by ironic design? — when Bassanio opts for the lead casket.

At first sight, Ralph Funicello’s set looks far too black and white for one of Shakespeare’s grayest plays. And too spare: white-planked walkways contrast with dark, body-bag-like plastic below. Lit with strong blues by Alan Burrett, however, they become the bridges and canals of Venice. Funicello rolls opulent Belmont downstage, which the lighting bathes in golden hues. The stark contrast underlines what young Nerissa says at the beginning: “they are as sick that surfeit with too much as they that starve with nothing.”

A hallmark of an Adrian Noble–directed production: you can literally watch the characters think, and discover ideas, as they speak. Examples include Donald Carrier’s melancholic Antonio (who disappears like a ghost at the end), Lucas Hall’s Bassanio, Triney Sandoval’s deliberately grating Gratiano (he should play Thersites!), and Ryman Sneed’s Nerissa.

On opening night, Krystel Lucas had yet to make the connection between language and thought. At times stiff, her Portia wavered between speechifying, with antsy hands, and genuine expression.

The director added two touches not in the text. He includes a rejection of Shylock first introduced by Henry Irving in 1879 (around the time the Old Globe production is set): a voiceless, eloquent statement of Shylock’s complete alienation. The second, however, is overkill. A cameo near the end, it makes yet another plea for mightily wronged Shylock. But it’s unnecessary because Shylock’s battered spirit already hovers over the scene — and Miles Anderson has already built a profound, artistically earned case for unstrained mercy. ■

The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare

Old Globe Theatre, Lowell Davies Festival Stage, Balboa Park

Directed by Adrian Noble, cast: Miles Anderson, Allison Layman, Lucas Hall, Donald Carrier, Winslow Corbett, John Lavelle, Triney Sandoval, Nic Few, Robbie Simpson, Ryman Sneed, Adam Gerber, Kushtrim Hoxha, Charles Janasz; scenic design, Ralph Funicello; costumes, Deirdre Clancy; lighting, Alan Burrett; sound, Dan Moses Schreier

Playing through September 30. Runs in repertory with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 619-234-5623

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