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No Sale for Ark Theatre's 'Merchant'


Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" is enough of a problem play without the added complications thrown in by adapter and director Paul Wagar's Ark Theatre Company production at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks.

Awkwardly blending comedy and drama, family tale and courtroom theatrics and some of the oddest character business in his entire body of work, Shakespeare was simply off his game when writing "Merchant." That alone makes it a fascinating play to watch under the best conditions: There is often more to learn from a great artist's flawed work than his masterpieces, reminding us that the Bard was, after all, human.

The difficulties begin with the character of Shylock (whom Shakespeare describes as "a rich Jew"), a moneylender with no scruples and even less hesitancy to slice off a pound of Venetian merchant Antonio's flesh when he defaults on a loan. Only the most remarkable actors have been able to transcend the drama's built-in anti-Semitism and find a core of humanity in the man. Since remarkable actors come along rarely, most editions of "Merchant" are hard sits for modern, post-Holocaust audiences.

Wagar's is no exception. The Sunday performance we caught was especially out-of-sync in the Shylock department, since understudy Steve Connell was in the role for Bruce Cornwell. Connell is too young to play the grouchy Shylock, vexed not only with Antonio (Donald Robert Stewart) but with daughter Jessica (Vanessa Perkins), who has committed the unpardonable sin of eloping with a Christian, Lorenzo (Roger Vontobel). In Wagar's conception, Shylock is an Orthodox Jew prone to fretting and who frequently is spit upon and slugged in the stomach. Connell resembles more a rabbinical student going through a surreal hazing than a wealthy, mature gentleman of some power in the powerful city-state, and he never manages to emotionally find an opening for the audience to sympathize with his position.

On the other hand, this Shylock isn't so terrible that he deserves the spit bath he receives from several characters. Wagar may have figured this as a device to suggest the old image of the much-abused Jew, but it comes off as just being disgusting.

Far less convincing is the production's strange setting. This is a Venice where guys hang out, listen to metal music, play video games and dress in hip-hop gear and also where the traditional city-state coat of arms is always on display. Andrew Babiarz's set (also accommodating to Ark's other show in repertory, "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean") hints at a certain 15th century courtliness. If we're in both eras at the same time, the stagecraft here isn't nearly skillful enough to forge the idea. Wagar never comes to terms with the obvious social and political impact of shifting this particular drama, with its explosive ethnic and religious stereotypes, to our time.

Since this is an adaptation, it's too bad that the utterly pointless Act V wasn't cut, in which Portia (Tracie Lockwood)--who has smartly won the hand of Antonio's friend Bassiano (Rick Irwin) and cleverly turned the tables in court on Shylock--suddenly becomes a dislikable manipulator of Bassiano's affections with antics out of grade school or a really dumb soap opera plot.

This is the most disastrous final act in the entire Shakespeare canon, and it's played here like an appendage the actors have no clue how to handle. Lockwood is, by far, the surest hand in an extremely weak cast, but she's nonplused by her final scenes. So, by turn, are we.


"The Merchant of Venice," Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m., March 1-2 at 8 p.m., March 4 at 7 p.m. Ends March 4. $10. (323) 969-1707. Running time: 2 hours.

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