Once again, the open-air setting for Dog & Pony's annual Shakespeare in the Park production was little short of magical. In the twilight, above a spacious columned promenade partially overgrown with vines, the first stars peeked out overhead. The base of the fountain -- a stylized lotus, perhaps-- in the center of the pond served as a marvelous decorative touch that seemed to symbolize the ornate stone splendor of Venice. Several rough causeways led over the water to a stage surmounted by a staircase and a set of shuttered doors.
The Merchant of Venice is a weird comedy -- a delicious candy apple of a play that contains within it that most grotesque and haunting of worms, Shylock the Jew. It is a world in which the imagination soars wildly. The heroine is trapped in a fairy tale dilemma. According to her deceased father's will, her husband must be chosen according to a diabolical little game, involving three caskets -- one of gold, one of silver, one of lead. On the darker side, Shylock cajoles a Christian merchant whom he hates into taking a loan the collateral for which is a pound of flesh to be cut from the debtor's body, at a point closest to the heart.
The play is build around these two extravagant conceits. And the characters connected with them, Portia and Shylock, not only dominate the play, but come to embody opposing psychic forces that finally clash head-on in the climactic court scene -- a third extravagant conceit involving confusions of gender and identity.
What a treat it was to watch this Portia and this Shylock move toward their inevitable confrontation. Diana Shortes gave us an unforgettable, irresistible, somewhat dizzy heiress (her father, after all, was a practical joker with a philosophical bent). In a way, she seized on the costuming (by Cecile Covert), which placed the action in the jazz age, to create a high-spirited flapper belle, with a nutty charm she uses and enjoys, but takes with a saving pinch of salt. When Portia decides to dress as a man and impersonate a judge, it seems just the kind of wacky escapade that would catch her fancy. And wouldn't you know it, she transforms into a dapper young swain, just a bit odd, perhaps, but quite convincing -- never succumbing to the temptation (utterly out of character) to wring an imbecilic guffaw from us dullards in the audience by underlining the obvious fact that she is really a girl pretending she is a boy. Shortes' performance was grand, without being overdone. She was, quite simply, my favorite Portia ever.
In contrast, Martin Covert gave us a simple, interiorized Shylock, all the more troubling for his believability. He trudged through the ebullient Venetian populace with a mixture of resignation, iron will, disdain and deep, virulent bitterness. What a fascinating, monstrous creature. Compare him to the generic well-intentioned victims of racial injustice who demand sympathy from us now so often from the stage. How much more he challenges us. How much deeper and disconcerting the lessons he teaches. And, perhaps most importantly, how much more fascinating is the drama he provokes.
In any case, these two performances firmly anchored the production, which benefited as well by some solid work from Scott Jefferson (Antonio), Philip Tracy (Bassanio), Donald Lewis (The Moorish Prince), Mike Mallory (The Prince of Aragon) and Ann Casey (Nerissa), among others.
The many pleasures of the production, however, were not unalloyed by some lapses in tone. Particularly egregious was the notion of setting Tristan Codrescu afloat in an inflatable plastic raft, wearing giant frog fins and other incongruous gear, like a one-man flotilla of sideshow distractions, while his fellow actors strained valiantly to keep the audience focused on their scenes. They had enough to deal with, given the traffic of the nearby interstate and no mics. The last thing they needed was to be upstaged by Lancelot Gobbo's aquacade. I also did not understand why Lorenzo (played by Don Guillory, who has given us so many fine performances) seemed so goofy or why he was always bent over, as though overcome by a pathological hesitancy.
Still and all, the show carried its flaws with ease -- like a champion show dog overdue for a flea dip. Or, to paraphrase the nursery rhyme, when it was good, it was very, very good ...