Admirable Staging of 'Merchant'

The Public Theater adroitly handles problem of anti-Semitism

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

Play by William Shakespeare.

At the Public/Anspacher Theater through Feb. 26.

In an interview about six years ago, not long before his death, New York Shakespeare Festival founder Joseph Papp told me something I often remembered later. He said that in his newly started Shakespeare Marathon, an ambitious cycle that would present all the Bard's plays, there was only one production he would insist on directing personally: ''The Merchant of Venice,'' a work so charged with anti-Semitic overtones that some people wonder if it should be staged at all, or left on the shelf to be forgotten.

As one of the world's preeminent Shakespeare enthusiasts, Papp was not about to dodge one of the Bard's most heatedly discussed works. Yet as a Jew who cared deeply about his religion and heritage, he was equally unwilling to leave the drama in the hands of anyone but himself.

The marathon has now reached its 27th production, and while Papp is no longer here to guide it, I think he would be pleased with the ''Merchant'' currently appearing at the Public Theater. It's not a perfect production, but it has enough color and energy to reconfirm the play's importance.

More important, director Barry Edelstein and star Ron Leibman have found an approach to the play's title character -- moneylender Shylock, who seethes with resentment toward his Christian clients that makes melancholy sense of his vengeful rage. They see Shylock's anger not as the arbitrary venom of a congenitally spiteful man, but rather as a product of Jewish suffering inflicted by anti-Semites and their allies.

Also evident in Edelstein's interpretation, although less pungently so, is his view of ''Merchant'' as an exploration of how entrenched societies erect walls of prejudice to protect their interests. Edelstein recently told the Jewish publication Forward that not only Jews but also Catholics, blacks, Spaniards, and homosexuals are among the ''others'' given a hard time by the play's more privileged characters. In program notes to the production, Shakespeare expert James Shapiro similarly notes that ''Merchant'' depicts scornful treatment of foreigners and women as well.

In sum, the Shakespeare Festival has built its new ''Merchant'' on a foundation of responsible scholarship and thoughtful analysis. Adding to its impact is Edelstein's staging, which keeps the action flowing briskly, articulately, and sometimes quite amusingly. It flags a bit in the last half-hour, after Shylock has left the story for good. Generally, though, Edelstein makes a strong case for ''Merchant'' as a worthwhile experience for today's audiences.

Leibman is the show's linchpin, blazing with nervous animosity while maintaining a bedrock humanity that makes Shylock a fully developed person rather than a one-dimensional cipher. The downside of Leibman's approach is that his words lose intelligibility and become outpourings of mere sound at times. Even the sublime ''I am a Jew, hath not a Jew eyes?'' speech gets this treatment, cascading across the stage with such ferocity that its poetry quite vanishes.

Among the other players, Laila Robins is an expressive Portia, showing a fine ear for humor in scenes with Robert Jason Jackson and Walker Jones as her suitors.

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