Shakespeare's drama "The Merchant of Venice" is one of his trickiest plays to stage, because its central character, a Jewish merchant named Shylock, seemingly embodies anti-semitic stereotypes. It's not an easy play to sit through for anybody who prefers to watch nice characters say nice things about other nice characters.
The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company production is true to the Bard's words when it has the money-lending Shylock spit out his incendiary speeches, but it also brings out the extent to which prejudice against Jews was the cultural norm in Shakespeare's day. The Christian characters who make nasty remarks about Shylock don't exactly come off looking like saints.
What's most notable about this production directed by Teresa Castracane is that it isn't content merely to show how there's more than enough blame to be shared by both Shylock and his enemies, but that it ups the ante by casting a black actor as that Jewish Venetian merchant. The dialogue remains as written, of course, but this casting choice prompts you to think about the psychic damage inflicted upon any religious or racial minority. After all, the courtroom scene near the end of this play includes a listing of what amount to Jim Crow-type laws against Jews.
If such casting initially grabs your attention, what ultimately holds it is that Greg Burgess gives such a richly nuanced performance as Shylock. Wearing a long black leather coat, he snarls his lines with such conviction that he's not afraid to make Shylock as unsympathetic as modern audiences have often found him. By the same token, this actor's voice occasionally softens and even breaks as he brings out the hurt Shylock feels over the legal restrictions that make him a second-class citizen.
Shylock arguably would be a disturbing and, yes, psychologically disturbed character in just about any story put before the public in Elizabethan England, but the specific story in "The Merchant of Venice" taps into the ugliest slurs about members of his religion. These slurs are especially unsettling here, because the middle-aged Shylock intervenes in what otherwise presumably would be a smile-inducing romance involving young lovers.
Bassanio (Matthew Sparacino) is primed to fall in love, and his good friend, the merchant Antonio (Scott Alan Small), would like to help him out. Although Bassanio is attracted to the smart and beautiful Portia (Heather Howard), he knows that courtship in his society doesn't come cheap. Anybody going on a date today can relate to the fact that the costs add up, so it isn't surprising that Bassanio needs to raise some capital in order to woo Portia. Antonio is low on cash, so he arranges to borrow money he can then give to Bassanio.
Through deliciously volatile melodramatic complications, it transpires that Shylock makes a loan to Antonio that he definitely expects to be paid back on time. Shylock does not want to hear about financial setbacks and just plain bad luck. Indeed, he eventually goes to court to argue that he literally be repaid with a "pound of flesh" extracted from Antonio's chest.
The play's monetary and moral concerns are spotlit in a production that has little in the way of props to distract you. Among the supporting actors who claim that mostly empty space as their own are Molly Moores, James Jager, Chelsea Mayo, Michael Boynton, Vince Eisenson, Frank Mancino and Matthew Ancarrow.
What unfortunately prevents this minimal staging from having the maximum dramatic impact is that the director and cast seem determined to get as much mileage as possible out of the play's more lighthearted relationships and scenes.
A case in point is Shylock's servant, Lancelet Gobbo (Kelsey Painter), who admittedly fits within the theatrical tradition of having a foolish character boldly mock those in power. Gobbo's clowning here is so over the top that it becomes tedious.
In aiming for a light and lively staging, most of the actors dart around with such manic speed that they seem even sillier than they're sometimes intended to be. If these goofy antics are meant to supply a life-affirming alternative to the death-courting plot, they tend to trivialize the ethical considerations that are so forcefully voiced by Burgess as Shylock.
Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's "The Merchant of Venice" runs through March 24 at Oliver's Carriage House, 5410 Leaf Trader Way, in Columbia. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m.; no performances March 1, 2, 3 and 10. Tickets are $36, $29 for seniors, $15 for students. Call 410-313-8661 or go to http://www.chesapeakeshakespeare.com.