American Players Theatre was well aware of the risks involved in presenting Shakespeare's problem play The Merchant of Venice as part of this summer's season. After all, Merchant features Shakespeare's most controversial villain in the form of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender whose name has become synonymous with a stereotype that exists to this day. Rather than make light of the brutal treatment Shylock receives at the hands of his "Christian" adversaries, director James Bohnen confronts this ugliness head on, tempering the play's romantic comedy with poignant questions about mercy and justice.
Antonio (Jim DeVita), the titular merchant, is already in financial straits when his friend Bassanio (Matt Schwader) begs him for funds so that he can woo the lovely Portia (played with wit and charm by Colleen Madden). Antonio is forced to borrow the money from Shylock (James Ridge), Venice's reviled moneylender. When Antonio can't repay his debt, Shylock demands the agreed-upon pound of flesh from Antonio's breast. The loyal Bassanio hurries back to Venice, and Portia follows after to save the day.
Despite its comedic plot twists, normal'>The Merchant of Venice's examination of prejudice, greed, and wrath gives the play a darker sting. APT's production plays up the text's inherent anti-Semitism, making Shylock's situation far more sympathetic than in the generically comic interpretation, and James Ridge takes on the role with galvanizing power. His courtroom tirade against Christian hypocrisy is so unstintingly eloquent that no one - not even the noble Antonio - emerges looking like a hero.
Thanks to a uniformly strong cast, the play's unsettling moments are delicately balanced by its humor. Jonathan Smoots, whose scenes as two of Portia's colorful suitors drew spontaneous applause during the opening night performance, adds a rich vein of comic relief. As Bassanio, Matt Schwader gives an infectiously open-hearted performance, and both David Daniel as the bumbling Launcelot and Darragh Kennan as garrulous Gratiano provide moments of wonderful comedy. Enhanced by fluid staging and lush costumes, APT's Merchant is a profound treat.