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THEATER REVIEWS : 'Merchant of Venice' as Over-the-Top Farce

October 14, 1994|SCOTT COLLINS

At last, a production that offers a new motive for Shylock's villainy.

Most modern versions of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" paint Shylock, the play's Jewish loan shark, as a pathetic victim who exacts his revenge after a life of religious persecution. Yet the new effort by Will & Company at Los Angeles Theatre Center's Theatre 3 gives another rationale: Poor Shylock is the only rational man in a sea of cartoonish clowns.

Recognizing the play's roots as a comedy, director Colin Cox has carried that notion to the extreme, yielding a kooky, over-the-top farce completely out of character with the text itself. Even a minor character like Gratiano (Armando Ortega) is here transformed into a scenery-chewing Daffy Duck who exaggerates his love of mirth into fits of prancing and hyena-like laughter.

This kind of nonsense is even more painful--and noticeable--because Gregg Daniel delivers such a serious and sensitive performance as Shylock, the money-lender who schemes to extract a pound of flesh from the merchant Antonio (the lifeless Jesus Nebot).

As an African American actor, Daniel gives added resonance to the role of a beleaguered minority figure in a brutally racist culture. Yet the humanity he brings to the part transcends considerations of color or religion.

Daniel's Shylock is one of regal bearing and reckless pride. The eye patch he wears is an apt metaphor for the usurer's smugly one-sided way of looking at things, but this talented actor could probably play the part blindfolded, so captivating is his mixture of contempt, superciliousness and pathos.

Director Cox and the rest of the company, on the other hand, seem to be striding a wholly different stage. At various points, the actors scream, giggle, slap their foreheads, flex their muscles, do frenzied double-takes and generally behave like revelers at a MTV beach party.

The trend toward comic low-jinks even overwhelms Portia, the play's moral compass, here travestied by Erica Ortega as a vacuous Valley Girl.

Worst of all, the show fails to take advantage of a beautiful thrust stage with nearly perfect sight lines. Cox stages virtually all the action downstage center, with messy entrances and exits. Dead space abounds.

As a result, we never really care whether Antonio will be forced to pay his debt with a pound of flesh. These Venetians aren't flesh-and-blood anyway.

* "The Merchant of Venice," Los Angeles Theatre Center, Theatre 3, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. (performances in Spanish Oct. 20-23). Ends Oct. 30. $13. (213) 485-1681. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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