Review: The Merchant of Venice

By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

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.

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

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, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.

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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: www.quintessencetheatre.org.

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