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'Merchant,' masterfully handled

Women's Shakespeare Company is up to the task of the controversial comedy with anti-Semitic overtones.

June 24, 2005|David C. Nichols | Special to The Times

Few plays by William Shakespeare remain as controversial as "The Merchant of Venice," which the Los Angeles Women's Shakespeare Company clearly understands.

Director-actress Lisa Wolpe and her all-female crew give the Bard's dark comic study of anti-Semitism and ambivalent romantic intrigue an invigorating boost.

Wolpe aptly sets the action in 1942, with clashes unfolding amid the brick-and-marble levels and Christian icons of Katrina Coulorides' smart Ivy Substation set. The concept finds current pertinence within period values, shrewdly maintained by sound designer Sue Brandt, costumer Alison Leach and lighting designer Maura McGuinness.

Title merchant Antonio and his friend Bassanio strike homoerotic notes that shade Bassanio's courtship of heiress Portia. Antonio's plot-launching contract with moneylender Shylock proves riveting in the shadows of fascism. The three-casket test to win Portia's hand, the interfaith coupling of Shylock's daughter, Jessica, and playboy Lorenzo and the oft-cut business with the rings gain additional resonance.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 25, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
"Merchant of Venice" -- In some copies of Friday's Calendar section, a photo caption with a review of "The Merchant of Venice" at Ivy Substation misidentified Cynthia Beckert as Veralyn Jones. Also, in the review, actress Dara Goldman was referred to as Kara Goldman.

The double-cast ensemble is as sly a slate of gender benders as this company has yet assembled. Wolpe, who alternates with Nancy Linehan Charles, is a stunning Shylock. Veralyn Jones' sober Antonio has ripe inner life (Christine Avila is the alternate merchant). Cynthia Beckert's declamatory Bassanio melts against Kara Goldman's contemporary Portia, whose witty male incognito drives the climactic trial.

Kathleen Dunn's Nerissa and Kimberleigh Aarn's Gratiano suggest MGM second bananas. As Jessica, Paulie Rojas surmounts accent issues, well paired with Jennifer Chu's frisky Lorenzo. Fran Bennett's Moroccan prince and Venetian duke offer contrasting portraits of pomp. Kellynn Jones Meeks and Michelle Gardner make the Aragonian prince and his mother into a hilarious high point.

Less mirth attends clown Launcelot Gobbo, and Barbara Bragg's quasi-Lucille Ball antics don't justify retaining the role. Overall, though, the quality of invention is mercifully unstrained, which distinguishes this memorable revival.


'The Merchant of Venice'

Where: Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays,

2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: July 10

Price: $15 to $20

Contact: (310) 205-4144


Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

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