Theater Info for the Washington DC region

Shakespeare Theatre Company The Merchant of Venice

By • Jul 1st, 2011 • Category: Reviews
The Merchant of Venice
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Sidney Harman Hall, Washington DC
Through July 24th
2:45 with one intermission
$20-$98; discounts for military, students, seniors and patrons 35 and under.
Reviewed June 29th, 2011

Productions of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice keep getting darker and darker, grittier and grittier. The admirable Shakespeare Theatre production further ups the pace by eroding shaky comedy and heightening rock-hard tragedy.

By the mid-20th Century directors were making it clear that for all her manipulative talk about “mercy,” the romantic lead Portia was a bit of a sadist. And then it became increasingly clear that Portia’s romantic counterpart, Bassanio, was himself an accomplished manipulator. He’s a profligate aristocrat who has squandered his inheritance. So he sponges off of his rich friend Antonio (the eponymous merchant of Venice). And he courts Portia because she’s loaded, an heiress.

By the 1980s it was common to see an Antonio who was clearly infatuated sexually with Bassanio — in part because Bassanio is a high status playboy while he, Antonio, is a mere (though plenty rich) bourgeois businessman.

I’ve seen the frivolous and decadent possibilities of Merchant emphasized in an Oregon Shakespeare Festival production that came across as a glossy and satirical Vogue or Architectural Digest tribute to the super rich of Milan. A bit later the bizarrely brutal qualities of Merchant were played up in a Seattle Shakespeare Theatre spaghetti western style production set during the California gold rush.

The current Shakespeare Theatre Company Merchant, set in 1920s Manhattan, establishes a new record for grim and gritty. The poignantly tragic Jewish money-lender Shylock is, literally, the show’s center of gravity — an intense force that grows and grows and then implodes.

In accordance with director Ethan McSweeny’s plan of action, a stupid joke in the final scene, which is usually played for giggles and titters, becomes two full out marital squabbles between couples who aren’t even married quite yet. And, more startling, a lyrical poetry duet between Bassanio’s pal Lorenzo and Shylock’s daughter Jessica is played as a disheartened and disheartening sniping match. Jessica is pregnant and bedraggled. Lorenzo, who eloped with Jessica on the understanding that she would steal a ton of money and luxury goods from her father, is apparently bummed out because that ill-gotten dowry has been squandered. And this Lorenzo is a parasite; definitely not the type who would actually go out and get a job.

As for Shylock, he is always the main fascination in any production of Merchant. In 1596, when Merchant was new, Shylock was apparently a clown/villain. And yet … It is hard to imagine that even the most bigoted and ignorant of Elizabethan audience could possibly see Shylock as entirely ludicrous and evil. Shakespeare gives him too many good lines. His passionate words establish his humanity. They also establish the loutishness of his Christian tormentors.

And so, for centuries the greatest, most celebrated actors of their day have insisted on playing Shylock — Patrick Stewart, Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino to name a few of the more recent star Shylocks.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Shylock, Mark Nelson, clearly demonstrates the dramatic powers of the role. Nelson is a bit rabid and demonic in the earlier scenes. But when he gets down to business he is heart-rending. He is a serious tragic hero. Everyone around him is mindlessly frivolous at best and mindlessly vicious at worst. As Shylock, Nelson is intense. He is passionate. He is incapable of detachment. As always happens with tragic heroes — from Oedipus and on and on for thousands of years — the hero’s single-minded intensity is self-destructive. But that destruction is somehow redemptive. It provides a moral comment on the world Shylock lives in. It clarifies the fact that he is surrounded by a throng of shallow, silly twits and stupid, bullying creeps.

Merchant would be intolerable without him.

But just in case you didn’t know, here’s a point to remember. Christians spit on Shylock, taunt him and kick him because he charges interest on the money he lends. And so when Antonio, one of his arch antagonists, asks him for a loan he says OK, fine, no interest. But if you default I get to carve off a pound of your flesh. The deal is weird and creepy. But so what? Antonio has richly laden merchant vessels headed for Venice from all over the world. What could go wrong? What indeed.

Director McSweeny has recruited actors who enliven the twits and jerks who form Shylock’s milieu. As Portia, Julia Coffey is like a Long Island debutante right out of F. Scott Fitzgerald. She buckles down and gets serious, however, when she gets a chance to enter the real world. She is disguised as a lawyer/judge. She torments Shylock with cold calculation. With a bit of cocaine, one can easily imagine this Portia making a name for herself as an inspired dominatrix.

As Bassanio, Drew Cortese has a bit of class — at least compared with the sneering, snarling thugs who constitute his entourage.

Contributing to the gritty quality of McSweeny’s production are costumes by Jennifer Moeller. The downtown deal makers and hustlers wear dull, dark, heavy suits and squishy hats and caps. Meanwhile, the ladies who frequent Portia’s estate wear slinky flapper frocks in pale satin. Somehow the contrast between scarce satin and abundant sharkskin emphasizes the general sense of grubbiness — as if conspicuous consumption and luxury were a mindless strategy for escaping from ugly facts of life.

A setting by Andrew Lieberman suggests an elevated railway platform with shadowy dwellings and businesses underneath. Descending crystal chandeliers and bright lighting (by Marcus Doshi) partially transform sinister lower Manhattan into swanky suburbia. As with the costume contrasts, the cheery scenery alterations never really escape sorry underlying realities.

I like this tendency to explore qualities that are implicit (but heretofore ignored) in Shakespeare’s plays. Twelfth Night profits from a vaudeville farce treatment. It also plays well as a George and Ira Gershwin 1920s musical. This STC Merchant is enriched by a mood reminiscent of the ash can school of American art. Sooner or later someone will stage a Tempest in which the supposed great man and hero Prospero is revealed as a brutal colonial exploiter — and the exploited native, Caliban, is seen not as a feeble-minded villain but rather an essentially good-natured though mistreated noble savage.

Shakespeare is the gold standard of world drama. Like gold, his plays are most valuable when turned into ever-evolving new works.

Photo Gallery

Derek Smith as Antonio Julia Coffey as Portia
Derek Smith as Antonio
Julia Coffey as Portia
Julia Coffey as Portia and Mark Nelson as Shylock
Julia Coffey as Portia and Mark Nelson as Shylock

Photos by Scott Suchman


  • Little Italy
    • Antonio: Derek Smith
    • Bassanio: Drew Cortese
    • Lorenzo: Matthew Carlson
    • Gratiano: Aubrey Deeker
    • Salerio: Andy Murray
    • Duke: Dew: Eschelman
  • Belmont
    • Portia: Julia Coffey
    • Nerissa: Liz Wisan
    • Prince of Morocco: Carl Cofield
    • Prince of Arragon: Vaneik Echeverria
  • Lower East Side
    • Shylock: Mark Nelson
    • Jessica: Amelia Pedlow
    • Lancelot Gobbo: Daniel Pearce
    • Tubal: Benjamin Pelton
  • Residents of Lower Manhattan, Servants, Suitors, etc: Gordon Adams, Travis Blumer, Adam Ewer, Emily Joshi-Powell, Kai Moeller, Khalil, Reddick, Kevin Stevens, Paul Stuart, Hannah Wolfe
  • Understudies
    • Duke: Gordon Adams
    • Prince of Morocco: Mamoudou Athie
    • Tubal: Travis Blumer
    • Bassanio: Matthew Carlson
    • Swing: Scott Courlander
    • Ensemble: Paige Dana
    • Lancelott Gobbo: Veneik Echeverria
    • Antonio: Drew Eschelman
    • Prince of Arragon: Adam Ewer
    • Gratiano: Tim Getman
    • Jessica/Nerissa: Emily Joshi-Powell
    • Ensemble: Blake Kaiser
    • Shylock: Andy Murray
    • Lorenzo: Kevin Stevens
    • Salerio/Solanio: Paul Stuart
    • Portia: Hannah Wolfe


  • Director: Ethan McSweeny
  • Set Designer: Andrew Lieberman
  • Costume Designer: Jennifer Moeller
  • Lighting Designer: Marcus Doshi
  • Composer & Sound Designer: Steven Cahill
  • Choreographer: Karma Camp
  • Wig Designer: Dave Bova
  • Casting Director: McCorckle Casting, Ltd.
  • Resident Casting Director: Daniel Rehbehn
  • Voice and Dialect Coach: Deena Burke
  • Assistant Director: Jenny Lord
  • Stage Manager: Bonnie Brady
  • Assistant Stage Manager: Benjamin Royer

Disclaimer: Shakespeare Theatre Company provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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lives in Arlington with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. Before retiring last year at age 70, he was theater critic at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for 27 years. Prior to that, he reviewed plays for the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Texas Observer and the Swarthmore College Phoenix. Non-reviewing journalistic jobs include writing for the Houston Chronicle, the San Juan (Puerto Rico) Star and El Mundo de San Juan. Think about it: most of the papers he worked for no longer exist. Maybe this internet gig has better longevity prospects.

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