LENOX >> Words matter in director Tina Packer's thoughtful revival of William Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice."
Under the rubric "Memory Theatre," words — quotes from various Shakespeare plays that hold special meaning for individual members of the company, Hebrew and Aramaic verses, memorable dates — adorn the facing of the upper level seating in the Tina Packer Playhouse's impressive, newly reconfigured theater-in-the-rectangle arrangement.
Words — the writing of Emilia Lanier, believed by Packer to be the "dark lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets — written in black facsimile handwriting over a white cross that has been painted over a round seal with Hebrew writing on the black floor of the four-sided stage.
And there are words, Shakespeare's words, insincere words sincerely spoken in a Catholic Venice — a melting pot, of sorts, in Packer's thinking — where class means money, and money means power.
Packer's production begins in darkness — a masque performed in half-light that erupts in a light-filled burst of composer Daniel Levy's infectious up-tempo club arrangement of Bruno Mars' "Uptown Funk." That distinction between dark and light is emblematic of a play that often seems at war within itself, even in a production as compact, despite a three-hour running time, lucid and, for the most part, well-acted as this.
The sunnier side of "Merchant" has the Bard in the kind of romantic-comedy realm he developed with much greater sophistication and skill in the plays that came later.
It's a double romantic plot, both employing disguise and misdirection. One involves the good wealthy lady Portia of Belmont, marvelously played by Tamara Hickey with a fierce sense of womanly pride, intellect and assertion, tempered by good old-fashioned girlish longing and lustful anticipation (watch her mouth as her would-be lover and husband, Bassanio — an inconsistent, if sincere, Shahar Isaac — promises her a kiss from across an expanse of space).
She is a force to be reckoned with; coming into her own, in many ways, when, disguised as young male legal clerk, she frames the legal argument against Shylock's claim on Antonio's pound of flesh. But she also is the victim of a late father's dictate that she can marry only the suitor who correctly opens the one casket of three — one of gold, one of silver, one of lead — that contains her image within.
Bassanio's desire to be a presentable moneyed suitor to Portia is the link to the darker, more substantive — particularly in this production — element of "Merchant," which centers around Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, who agrees to lend Antonio (a reasonably credible John Hadden) the 3,000 ducats he is seeking ion behalf of Bassanio, on condition he forfeit a pound of flesh should he default on his loan, which, in fact, becomes a reality when a portion of Antonio's merchant fleet encounters disaster at sea.
As Shylock, Jonathan Epstein — who played this role under Packer's direction 18 years ago at The Mount — has firm hold on the center of this production in a stunningly mature, complex, deeply nuanced portrayal of a businessman, a Jew in a Catholic society, doing his best to survive and make a living and a home for himself and his daughter, Jessica (an acceptable Kate Abbruzzese), who cruelly abandons him by running away with an earnest Catholic named Lorenzo (Deaon Griffin-Pressley) and converting.
Just how delicate is the line Shylock walks is seen in a sequence in which, having left Jessica behind for a few hours, he is accosted on the street, surrounded. Reasoning with his antagonists — "Hath not a Jew eyes " — calmly, rationally ends with a beating. You can sense the snap within him as he rises. Actions have consequences. Bad acts have bad consequences; succeeding only in widening an already yawning divide. Shylock's resolve to get his pound of flesh from Antonio is now unshakable. Antonio, for whom Shylock holds no love to begin with, will pay not only because it is the bond he owes Shylock, this is recompense, bitter, hard recompense for Shylock's victimization
For all its achievements and accomplishments, Packer's production loses a good deal of its momentum once Shylock's case is resolved and Shakespeare turns his attention to untying the knots created by Portia and Nerissa to test the faithfulness of Bassanio and Graziano's fidelity
What: "The Merchant of Venice" by William Shakespeare. Directed by Tina Packer; associate director, Elizabeth Aspenlieder; choreographer and movement director, Kristin Wold; fight choreography, Jonathan Croy
With (partial): Jonathan Epstein, Tamara Hickey, John Hadden, Shahar Isaac, Kate Abbruzzese, Bella Merlin, Jason Asprey, Deaon Griffin-Pressley, Erik Avari, Thomas Brazzle, Michael Fuchs
Designers: Kris Stone, set; Tyler Kinney, costume; Matthew Miller, lighting; Daniel Levy, composer/sound
Who: Shakespeare & Company
Where: Tina Packer Playhouse, 70 Kemble St., Lenox
When: Through Aug. 21. In rotating repertory — selected evenings at 7:30 and afternoons at 2
Running time: 3 hours 4 minutes (including one intermission)
How: (413) 637-3353; shakespeare.org; at 70 Kemble St. box office