The Merchant of Venice at BAM

I’m not sure that a depressing play about money lending is the most appropriate choice for the times, and though the adept and talented Propeller company did not manage to make The Merchant Venice the comedy it is forever miscategorized as, they did do many things right. Merchant is one of my least favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, which is maybe why I’m always so keen to see it performed. This time it’s set not in Venice but in a prison with a sort of come-and-go-as-you-please attitude. It works sometimes (lots of nice, repeated symbolism with things that are locked and caged) but mostly confuses things. It also makes a dark play even darker; The only pop of color is Portia’s red lipstick and the occasional blood spillage. But what it does do is allow performances, both good and otherwise, to stand out.

Jack Tarlton played Bassanio as bratty and self-serving as I’ve always thought he was, never overstepping the limits of the character or demanding more stage presence than Shakespeare gives him. Kelsey Brookfield’s Portia, however, is much too present. Granted, she has the majority of the lines (22%), and Brookfield delivers every single one of them in the same anxious, eyebrow-raised (almost constipated) seriousness. Lorenzo (Richard Dempsey), on the other hand, makes good use of his limited stage time and Antonio (Bob Barrett), is dutifully sullen, but at points too much so. When his life is saved he doesn’t seem all that relieved; He just mopes away from Shylock’s knife and puts his vest back on. But it is Richard Clothier’s Shylock that steals the show. No doddering, hunched over Al Pacino muttering his lines like Yoda, Clothier is bright, agile, and even funny. His emotional range is wide and never canned, even in a character who has become, ironically, so typecast.

The Merchant of Venice at BAM Harvey Theatre