Shylock is one of the more intriguing characters in the Shakespearean canon. The moneylender with a dark agenda gets an intriguing spin in the engaging St. Louis Shakespeare production of “The Merchant of Venice” that runs through Saturday.
Portrayed in the past by actors from Al Pacino to Patrick Stewart, this Shylock is brought to life by Julie George-Carlson. It’s perhaps a measure of the times that accepting a woman in a traditionally male role doesn’t require much of an adjustment. And the casting shouldn’t be a surprise coming from St. Louis Shakespeare: In the company’s production of “The Tempest” last year, artistic director Donna Northcott played Prospero.
Shakespeare’s works can be intimidating, with theatergoers often assuming that they need some special knowledge to understand what’s going on. But “The Merchant of Venice” is among his more relatable works, and director Phil Gill does a fine job of zeroing in on what’s at stake.
The story revolves around the interaction between Antonio (Addison Brown), who borrows a hefty sum to benefit his friend Bassanio (Riley Capp), and Shylock, who demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh if the loan is not repaid. Also figuring in the action is Portia (Liv Somner), an heiress who has won Bassanio’s heart — and whose legal savvy plays a key role in the story’s resolution.
She also gets one of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies, which begins with: “The quality of mercy is not strained;/ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/ Upon the place beneath.”
Because Shylock is Jewish and Antonio is Christian and anti-Semitic, scholars have long debated whether “The Merchant of Venice” is itself anti-Semitic or a play about anti-Semitism. But the play is generally acknowledged as among Shakespeare’s most important works.
Like some other local theater companies, such as SATE and Stray Dog Theatre, St. Louis Shakespeare stages its productions in a church space — previously at the Ivory Theatre situated in a former church, and currently at Tower Grove Baptist Church. Such spaces can pose acoustic challenges, particularly in regard to communicating Shakespearean language.
But this production largely sidesteps that problem. And as with any Shakespeare production, conveying the sense of the Bard’s words is as essential to the experience as capturing his poetic sensibility.
Gill elicits strong performances, particularly from George-Carlson and Capp. Upon her first appearance, George-Carlson projects an authority that immediately establishes Shylock as a formidable presence. And Capp displays such confidence and charisma that it only makes sense that Portia would prefer him to her other suitors.
Shakespeare wrote “The Merchant of Venice” more than 400 years ago, but the themes that the play addresses — worship of money and withholding of mercy — are timeless.