Class play

Monmouth gives Merchant new status
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  July 30, 2008
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The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare | Directed by Jeri Pitcher. Produced by the Theater at Monmouth, in repertory, through August 22 | 207.933.9999 | Scheduled pre- and post-show discussions with members of the Maine Jewish community are open to the public
A combination macabre courtroom drama and screwball romantic comedy, The Merchant of Venice is considered one of Shakespeare's "problem plays." On the one hand, we have the tormented Jewish moneylender, Shylock, determined to collect on the infamous "pound of flesh" he's owed from the Christian merchant Antonio. Modern times demand serious reflections on their conflict's racial, religious, and political dynamics — none of which were part of the dialogue in Shakespeare's day. But we also have an heiress subjecting her suitors to pithy riddles, cross-dressing as a young lawyer, and setting her new husband cute, catty little traps. How to reconcile it all? Interpreting Merchant is a perennial challenge, and Jeri Pitcher's Theater at Monmouth, production, starring Bill Van Horn as Shylock and Dan Olmstead as Antonio, is by far the wisest, most cohesive, and most satisfying treatment of the play I've seen.

Pitcher's has set the play in early 1960s America, the "Camelot" era, with sets that reminiscent of New York City and the Hamptons. The post-Holocaust time-frame (in Shylock's "I am a Jew" speech, he pushes up his sleeve to display a concentration camp tattoo) conjures a time of national optimism and faith in upward mobility, as well as of Cold War us-versus-them social constructs. Pitcher's choice makes for a rich and stylish production.

Olmstead's well-off Antonio heads a group of Roman-Catholic Italians who are tight-knit in both business and friendship. The clan spans generations and levels of economic arrival. While Antonio and his friend Bassanio (Dustin Tucker) both look like Sinatra in three-piece suits and matching hats, Lorenzo (J. Paul Guimont), wooer of Shylock's daughter Jessica (Kristen Burke), wears chinos and a golf shirt. Such costuming, along with scenes of the raucous Roman-Catholics at play, yukking it up over beers and a Yankees game on the transistor radio, suggest that all of them rose from blue-collar beginnings.

In contrast, heiress Portia (Anna Soloway), looks like a cross between Jackie Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn in her Hamptons-esque estate. Her old money, status, and privilege are ingrained, and she is the ultimate fantasy to Bassanio. It is, in fact, in the name of Bassanio's speculation upon Portia's hand that Antonio has borrowed from Shylock, who has risen as much as he has — enough to have power over a socially superior Roman Catholic — via interest-rates and hoarding. Seen in this American Dream, ways-and-means context, culture and identity are inextricable from economics.

And what a melting pot it makes. Pitcher and her extraordinary cast do marvelous work depicting the various social strata. Olmstead's Antonio, the oldest and most reserved of the clan, is a slender, elegant, rarely smiling man in a charcoal suit and burgundy tie, whose poise is nearly unfailing. But in the set of his jaw and the practiced, repressed manner of his grace, we sense that he has perhaps sacrificed much to achieve what he has (particularly when it comes to the homoerotic undertones often woven into this character, which Pitcher subtly refrains). This adds dimension to his antagonism toward Van Horn's devastating Shylock, and both masterful actors convey the sense of having seen and suffered much before their respective arrivals.

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