By Steve Barnes
Two of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches are at the center of his “The Merchant of Venice.” Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” addresses the undercurrent of racism that underlies the crux of the play, while Portia’s “the quality of mercy,” delivered in the heat of a courtroom battle, stresses the humanity that is needed to make an attempt at overcoming the effects of that racism.
Both speeches are delivered in a particularly affecting manner in the Secret Theatre’s production of what is likely the most famous of the Bard’s “problem plays,” those works that bridge the gap between comedy and drama. The story of a financial exchange that goes incredibly off track, Shakespeare’s play supplies both a generous dose of laughter and a troubling, darker side that makes us question the intent and effect of everything we see.
The story of the play centers around a deal made between Antonio (Michael Vincent Carrera), a nobleman, and Shylock (Richard Mazda), a Jewish moneylender. While arranging for a loan to help his friend Bassanio (Zachary Clark) woo and win Portia (Joy Donze). Antonio agrees to a very strange provision: If he fails to pay back the loan by the assigned date, Shylock is entitled to a pound of Antonio’s flesh.
Not surprisingly, that failure takes place, setting in place a chain of escapes, exchanges and disguises that catch almost all the characters up in a complex web of lies and betrayals before eventually reaching an ending that has all the appearances of a happy one, though it leaves a surprisingly bitter aftertaste.
Under the direction of Alberto Bonilla, the Secret Theatre’s production brings all of the play’s contradictions to life in sharp detail. In a nod to what seems to be the standard methodology of moving the action of Shakepeare’s works to more modern settings, Bonilla has placed the story in post-World War II Italy.
“I wanted to set ‘Merchant of Venice’ in post-WW II Italy because of the extreme circumstances that Europe was living with,” he says.
This move gives the story a surprisingly strong charge, especially in light of the extreme hostility most of the other characters express toward Shylock. Even the marriage of Shylock’s daughter, Jessica (Isabella Curti) to a young Christian man takes on an additional weight when reinterpreted through the historical framework that the director employs.
In addition, the conflict between the old and new worlds is brought into the mix. Antonio is an elegant, old-school Italian, while Bassanio and his comrades are young American GIs, who transform the play’s traditional setting with their rollicking horseplay and powerful physicality.
But in the end, the real test of contemporary remainings of the Bard lies in how they walk the fine line between the poetry of the language and the complexity of the plot. In this regard, the production succeeds with flying colors. The attempt to deliver the lines with strict Elizabethan pronunciation is done away with, and the relaxed speaking voices of the actors respect the rhythm and beauty of the text while also providing the audience with a clear, involving story line.
In a cast that is uniformly appealing, several actors stand out. Mazda gives us a surprisingly restrained Shylock, his focused, subtle intensity giving his speeches maximum emotional effect. Carrera delineates a multi-layered, involving Antonio, capturing his basic goodness while never losing sight of an essential priggishness within the character. And as Portia, Donze (along with her partner-in-crime Nerissa, admirably played by Grace Merriman) deftly alternates between bawdy humor and emotional power.
As far as costumes and sets go, both make strong contributions. Sandy Yalkin’s set combines elements of classical Italian architecture (balconies, bridges over rivers) with the look of rubble-strewn postwar streets, while Anna Winter’s costumes make the distinctions between characters clear.
For those not familiar with Shakespeare’s work, this engaging production would be a great place to start, while for those with a longtime affinity for his plays, it has more than enough original and provocative insights to make it worthwhile.
“The Merchant of Venice” runs through Sept. 18 at the Secret Theatre, 44-02 23rd St., Long Island City. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, with a 3 p.m. matinee on Sundays. Tickets are $18 in advance, $20 at the door. Go to secre