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Trinity’s ‘Merchant of Venice’ will make you a fan
Don Fowler
Photos by Mark Turek
Trinity Rep resident company members Stephen Berenson and Joe Wilson Jr., as Shylock and Antonio, in "The Merchant of Venice" at Trinity Rep. A bold new setting brings to light the timelessness of Shakespeare's controversial play. Directed by Artistic Director Curt Columbus, the show runs through March 11 in the Chace Theater. Set design by Eugene Lee, costume design by Olivera Gajic, lighting design by Keith Parham.

It has been over 50 years since I studied Shakespeare in college. I still have my annotated “Complete Works of Shakespeare” near my desk, referring to my ancient notes whenever I have to review his plays.

Back then, I (and my instructor) saw “The Merchant of Venice” as a tragedy. Director Curt Columbus opened my eyes to see beyond the story of prejudice and revenge, extracting so much more from the words on the pages.

Sure, there are tragic events, but there are also romance and comedy, brought about through clever and innovative directing and some hysterically funny acting by veterans Joe Wilson Jr. and Fred Sullivan Jr.

This is all in contrast to a magnificent, heart-wrenching performance by Stephen Berenson as Shylock, the Jewish merchant, who seeks that infamous “pound of flesh” from his borrower, Antonio.

And then there is the romance between Antonio’s penniless friend, Basanio (Stephen Thorne), and the wealthy Portia (Mary C. Davis), and Sullivan’s Gratiano and Portia’s maidservant, Nerissa (Rachael Warren). There is so much going on in this great play, and yet Columbus has made it one of the most accessible Shakespeare experiences I can recall.

There are serious dramatic moments, offset by some very, very funny ones. At a critical moment in the play, Portia is being suited by two princes (Wilson and Sullivan playing dual roles). They must choose correctly from gold, silver and metal boxes in order to win her hand in marriage. Their portrayals are “laugh till it hurts” moments.

Columbus has changed the time to the 1930s in Venice and Belmont, using sparse staging by Eugene Lee. Time and place are not the emphasis in this production, but the acting sure is. Watch for the simple gestures. Thorne, Sullivan and Wilson are experts at simple reactions and movements without overacting.

And there’s nothing wrong with making the ancient play personal. There is an “inside joke” with Warren, who is pregnant, and her situation. Berenson was raised in a strict Jewish family.

If you are unfamiliar with the play, you will enjoy the many surprises and twists of fate, as Shylock demands his pound of flesh in a dramatic courtroom scene with a couple of surprise guests, which is followed by a romantic conclusion. If you are familiar with the play, you’ll enjoy the Trinity “spin.” If you love Shakespeare, you’ll love Trinity’s version of a great, if often misunderstood, play. If you are not a fan of the Bard, this production just may convert you.

“The Merchant of Venice” is at Trinity through March 11. For reservations call 351-4242.

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