THE MERCHANT OF VENICE by William Shakespeare, directed by Sanjay Talwar, with Jani Lauzon, Carly Street, Richard Alan Campbell and Richard Harte. Presented by Shakespeare in the Rough at Withrow Park (Danforth and Logan). Runs to September 5, Wednesday-Saturday 7 pm, matinees Sunday and holiday Monday 2 pm. Pwyc ($15 suggested). 647-438-6742. Rating: NNN
Shakespeare in the rough effectively mixes the playful and the serious in its production of The Merchant Of Venice , thanks to strong direction and a cast that knows how to sell the emotions of a sometimes troubling script.
Though much of the piece is a romantic comedy, the character of Shylock adds a serious note to the laughs. Director Sanjay Talwar downplays the Jew-versus-Christian aspects, but though he removes visual icons such as stars of David and crucifixes from the production, he can't delete religious concepts from the text.
By casting the emotionally vivid Jani Lauzon as a bright and likeable Shylock, Talwar skews audience anticipation of how to react to the moneylender. Here, Shylock's main concern isn't money but, rather, the care of her daughter, Jessica ( Jennifer Villaverde ), and we see the mother falling apart when Jessica flees to the "other" side.
There's strength in the rest of the cast, notably Richard Harte 's impetuous Bassanio, Richard Alan Campbell 's avuncular and later stoical Antonio, Michael Blake 's well-spoken Gratiano, Jameson Kraemer 's amusing clown, Launcelot, and Aaron Willis , who as one of Portia's suitors seems to channel the foppish Scarlet Pimpernel.
The production's most endearing performer is Carly Street , who skilfully gives Portia heart and a comic side. She has the play's most famous speech - "The quality of mercy is not strained" - and presents it simply and movingly, as a lesson in humanity that Portia herself has learned.
Nina Okens's costumes use neutral shades of grey and black for Venice, with added touches of gold for Belmont and red scarves for Shylock and her tribe, but the look of the show, as with most SITR productions, goes beyond the stage proper to vistas in the park.
Talwar's crafted some striking wordless tableaux that deal with moments described or only hinted at in the script, including Shylock frantically seeking Jessica, portraits of Portia's suitors and a final image of the broken Shylock, indomitably trudging on through a spiritless life.