Sunday, October 4, 2015

Review: The Merchant of Venice

An excellent, fluid "The Mercant of Venice" is being staged by Quintessence Theatre Group at its Mount Airy home, the Sedgwick Theatre. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews from northwest Philly.

Review: The Merchant of Venice

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Benim Foster as Shylock walks through the dangerous masked crowd in Quintessence Theatre Group's "The Merchant of Venice."

By Howard Shapiro

The excellent, fast-moving rendition of The Merchant of Venice by Quintessence Theatre Group at the Sedgwick in Mount Airy is all the more interesting for its choices.

Quintessence artistic director Alexander Burns lets William Shakespeare's tale flow like the river of nastiness it is — a comedy because it follows the Elizabethan rule that it end with marriages, but a revenge play many see nowadays as a repellent portrait of Jews and Christians alike.

Burns paints that clearly, and the adept cast wastes little time in displaying a spitfire hatred of whomever their characters despise. An added treat is Quintessence's choice of text; some minor bits, normally cut, are played out and enliven the storytelling, which is set on a generally bare stage that seems oddly rich with scenery but in fact is not.

Even with additional text, Quintessence brings the play in at about two and one-half hours, a typical Merchant. What it lacks in sets it makes up in David A. Sexton's lighting, Bryce Page's sound and Jane Casanave's costume design, which outfits the men in handsome suits adorned with swell ties, and the women in stylish knee-length dresses.

Antonio (perfectly clean-cut, strong-voiced Josh Carpenter), the big-deal businessman whose assets are tied up in his merchant ships, borrows money from the only person who might lend it, Shylock (the convincing Benim Foster) -- and you know what happens from there.  Shylock, who abhors Antonio for his public prejudice, arranges an odd bond if the money is not repaid by deadline: He gets a pound of Antonio's flesh, essentially killing him.

In this energetic version, Shylock is not especially Jewish by accent or delivery -- Foster uses just enough mannerisms to make him different from the rest -- and he doesn't wear a skull cap. (Foster does sport a Jew-fro.) But you need no cues to determine alliances: They're obvious from the body language and the spewed lines.

Bassanio, great friend of Antonio and second-party recipient of his loan, is the played effectively by Sean Bradley. Jessica Dal Canton is Portia, his new wife, and Leslie Nevon Holden her maid; both characters have roles in Shylock's eventual dilemma and are acted flawlessly. Gratiano is played by Daniel Fredrick at his talky best; Bethany Ditnes as Shylock's daughter and Khris Davis as her Christian lover are fine.

Sometimes directors attempt to make nice with Merchant, with a silent scene to lessen the anti-Semitic vitriol. On Broadway last year, an added silent scene had a baptized Shylock walking away with defiance. It worked, an interpretation that seemed real and honest. In Quintessence's version, the Jew-haters end up dancing a spirited hora, a Jewish celebratory dance. It rings empty, false and confusing.

Merchant is playing, on different nights, with Quintessence's production of The Venetian Twins, an 18th-century play by Carlo Goldini that delighted my colleague Jim Rutter in a review last week. The two compose an example of true repertory, with the same casts -- by a company still in its infancy but far beyond that in its current work.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727,, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at Hear his reviews at the Classical Network,


The Merchant of Venice: Presented by Quintessence Theatre Group at Sedgwick Theatre, 7137 Germatown Ave., through Nov. 20, and in repetory at alternating times with The Venetian Twins. Tickets: $30. Information:


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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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