Shylock (Andrew Weems) importunes Jessica (Amaia Arana).
Courtesy Jerry Dalia.

The Merchant of Venice’
By William Shakespeare

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
Through June 4
F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre
36 Madison Ave., Madison, 973-408-5600


The role of Shylock towers. It’s up there in the nosebleeds with Iago, Hamlet, Willy Loman: Shakespeare’s Jewish banker utters a retort to bigotry that can only be answered with silence:

“If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not

Shylock’s poetry and anger have attracted theatrical heavyweights: Dustin Hoffman played the role on Broadway in 1989. Al Pacino played him in a film adaptation in 2004. In the 19th century, Edmund Kean and Henry Irving took on the role.

At Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, STNJ veteran Andrew Weems doesn’t so much tower as seethe, down here on earth. As directed by Robert Cuccioli, Weems’ Shylock feels more like a put-upon small businessman than a tragic figure. That’s a solid approach in what is a solid production of the play.

It’s a complex one: Shakespeare’s 1596-99 play draws on a tradition of the Jew as villain (see, for example, Christopher Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta,” 1589), and Shylock is hard to like. When he first appears, he comes bearing a grudge, refusing to be polite to the gentile Antonio (Brent Harris) who needs a loan. When his daughter elopes, we hear that he is equally angry about losing his daughter, Jessica (Amaia Arana), to elopement and losing his ducats. In that context, Shakespeare’s humanizing lines are shocking.

The headline of this review refers to this story as a “tale.” In Shakespeare’s day, “Merchant” was classified as a comedy: it ends with happy couples. Happy-ish, anyway.

It’s hard to get the balance right, accommodating the 16th-century point of view and contemporary sensibilities. Productions set in Weimar Germany to bring out society’s antisemitism, for example, often go astray. And obviously a play where bigotry seems justified won’t fly in 2017.

Cuccioli walks the fine line beautifully. He’s set the world of the play at a little distance: we’re in the teens or 1920s, to judge by the costumes (very pretty and intricate, by Candida Nichols). People are polite but prejudice is everywhere. But it’s not so specific that we find errors in the attitudes.

Bassanio (John Keabler), with, in background, Nerissa (Rachel Towne), Portia (Melissa Miller), Tubal (Joe Penczak) and Gratiano (Ian Gould).
Courtesy Jerry Dalia.

Brian Ruggaber’s revolving set of many levels becomes a Venetian café, or the terraced estate of young heiress Portia (played with humor and charm by Melissa Miller). The revolve makes the point that the elements of society are everywhere, though watching the poor actors muscle it around sometimes didn’t seem worth it.

The actors are solid too, sometimes surprising: Miller’s Portia has spirit. John Keabler plays Bassanio, a young man who needs a loan, as a decent man with uncouth friends. All of his instincts are good.

The merchant of the title is Antonio, suave and urbane Brent Harris, who has ships at sea but no liquid cash to lend his friend — without a loan from a moneylender. Shylock agrees to the loan and instead of interest asks for a pound of flesh if the loan isn’t repaid on time.
Well, you can guess the rest. There’s a subplot involving Portia and suitors choosing the right casket — gold, silver or lead — which anyone who’s ever read a fairy tale can figure out in a jiffy. Apparently however that doesn’t include her suitors, amusingly played by Ademide Akintilo as a vain Moroccan prince and Jeffrey M. Bender as an insufferable prince of Arragon, with a hilarious Spanish accent. Shakespeare did love his accents.

Later, Portia and her maid, Nerissa (Rachel Towne), disguise themselves and attend the trial of Antonio. Portia seems at first to justify Shylock, then outwits him. (There’s another subplot about rings the two ladies gave their husbands, never to be given away, that is straight out of a ballad.)

There are hints in the text and in Arana’s performance too that Jessica has misgivings, if not regrets. On a moonlit night, as she and Lorenzo reminisce, she says: “In such a night
Did young Lorenzo swear he loved her well,
Stealing her soul with many vows of faith
And ne’er a true one.”

She has no lines when she hears of Shylock’s disgrace and forced conversion. Her silent moment is a sucker punch. Cuccioli lets it linger, before closing the play with Antonio sitting by himself, thinking.

All’s well that ends well — at least for some.