Worth its weight
The Merchant of Venice
It doesn’t necessarily mean other aspects of a play are faulty when the first thing that has to be mentioned is the costumes. It means a company has exceptional designers, although that could always be said about Nevada Repertory Company; it doesn’t hurt that UNR, where the company is based, offers costume design classes.
Nevada Rep’s latest, The Merchant of Venice, set in 1950s Venice, Italy, and the fictitious city of Belmont, features period attire from elaborate swing dresses to double-breasted Hoffa-inspired suits. Even from the audience, the craftsmanship of the costumes is clear. Particularly arresting are Portia’s (Jennifer Crenshaw) bejeweled white high heels—so much so that during slower segments of the play (don’t worry, there aren’t many), they keep the eyes fixed.
Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s weirder plays. Hardly a tragedy and a little too bitter and dark to be a Midsummer Night’s Dream-style comedy, the anti-Semitic play deals with issues of revenge, death, betrayal, cross-dressing, girl power and star-crossed love.
Nevada Rep chose to cut many scenes to shorten the play and, as a result, some of the irony and cynicism of the original version is lost. There is very little focus on the relationship between I-can’t-wait-to-be- a-Christian Jessica (Susan Lang, RN&R Calendar Editor Kelley Lang’s sister) and her overbearing Jewish father, Shylock (Maurice Palermo). Instead, the focus is on Shylock’s bloodlust for a pound of the merchant Antonio’s (Michael Peters) flesh. The monologues we all recognize are still there; Merchant of Venice would not be Merchant of Venice without Shylock’s “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech.
The choice of Enya songs as segues between scenes almost always feels out of place. Because the play is neither definitively comic or tragic, the pining and melancholy music of Enya didn’t really tie in well with the whole ‘50s theme.
Some of the performances are close to flawless. Palermo’s Shylock has more depth and breadth than Patrick Stewart’s (the Shakespearean actor who also portrayed Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation). He is utterly hateful and yet elicits the audience’s deepest sympathy. When the verdict falls that Shylock is unable to have the flesh he has longed for, Palermo makes his character’s defeat and humility palpable.
Crenshaw as Portia and Joshua Jessup as Bassanio are also give shining performances. The interaction between the two lovers is electric; they truly seem infatuated. Also worthy of praise is Mary Pinkerton as Nerissa, Portia’s closest friend who bears the voice of compassion and reason. Pinkerton delivers her lines with all the proper nuances, an often difficult task when working with Shakespearean syntax. When Portia and Nerissa dress as men—fooling their lovers, Shylock and the Duke of Venice (Dale Fast)—their exaggerated mannerisms are hilarious.
Nevada Rep’s Merchant of Venice is worth its weight in flesh, which we all know is more valuable than gold.