Actor brings 'Merchant of Venice' to life

It's not easy these days to do a show about a Jewish moneylender who's ridiculed, spit upon and forced to become a Christian. But director Sharon Ott respects the complexities of "The Merchant of Venice." She helps us see that the script is about something deeper than one author's prejudices.

Ott and actor Tony Amendola give Shakespeare's controversial character Shylock so many shadings that it's difficult to either embrace or dismiss him.

When the businessman lends the very honorable Antonio (Gary Neal Johnson) 3,000 ducats for three months, Shylock seems intelligent, logical and streetwise; perhaps generous. Even when he asks for a pound of Antonio's flesh as penalty for any possible late payment, the man seems OK. Perhaps he's just kidding. But beneath the respectable veneer is a victim full of violent contempt. Who can blame him? He's suffered a lot of abuse at the hands of the local Christian community.

Amendola quietly gets at Shylock's divided soul. Without this sort of extraordinarily three-dimensional performance, the play would feel like, frankly, simple-minded "Jew baiting." (No wonder so many think the script anti-Semitic.)

Johnson holds his own as Antonio. He, too, projects the confidence of a hugely successful entrepreneur. But the actor also allows us to believe that, unlike Shylock, Antonio puts financial gain in proper perspective. His friends come first.

Max Robinson delivers an elegant kick in the show's climax in the brief role of the aging, compassionate and easily deluded Duke of Venice. Robinson comes across as a kind, analytical dictator who's spent all his adult life giving orders.

Ott gives the story an unusual and vastly entertaining ominous spin. It has the feel of a thriller. She's greatly helped by Gerald Rheault's creepy underscoring.

But all is not well with this production.

There are extensive comedy scenes, nearly all of which are overstated. And while Emily Trask as the main love interest, Portia, has the physical assets to convince us she's a hypnotically beautiful young heiress, her speaking voice lacks poetry. She fails to bring softness to the role.

Amendola, though, is what this show is all about. You can never take your eyes off him. He and Ott don't provide tidy answers to the script's disturbing moral questions. But they sure make the exploration exciting.