Shylock might be the most interesting character Shakespeare ever penned; and you can't perform Merchant of Venice unless you have an actor talented enough to be both loathsome and pitiable in equal measure. James Ridge of the The American Players Theater is up to the task, and delivers an unbelievable performance as the play's villain and victim.
In the play, Bassanio is in love with Portia, who must marry based on a test where suitors choose between three chests. Bassanio's friend, Antonio, borrows money from Shylock, a rich Jew, on Bassanio's behalf. The terms of the agreement demand a pound of Antonio's flesh if he cannot pay back the lent amount, and when Antonio fails to do so, Shylock intends to collect.
From the moment Ridge's Shylock walks onstage, to the moment he walks off, the show is 100% in his hands. The other characters are great, and you can't discount the truly superb performances of Jim DeVita (Antonio), Colleen Madden (Portia), or Matt Schwader (Bassanio), but Ridge simply owns that stage. He is in a league of his own, and it is almost as if he is acting in his own brilliant world, and the other actors can do what they like—he'll shine regardless. Shylock's final scene at the end of Act 1, during which he curses his daughter's flight and thievery and vows vengeance on Antonio, is powerful and passionate. Ridge is so in the moment, and the moment so intense, that when he rises from his knees, you can see the tears on his cheeks.
Equally powerful is the trial scene, when Shylock is ready to exact payment from Antonio. Here, it is not only Ridge, but all actors onstage who shine. DeVita is visibly frightened and emotionally beaten, Schwader completely bereft, and Madden even more brilliant as a man than she is in previous scenes as a woman. The direction in this scene is beautiful; Shylock circles the stage confidently and cold-heartedly, only to become as visibly defeated as Antonio is throughout. Gratiano (Darragh Kennan) screams for mercy in one moment, and then offers none the next; there is a bit of business with Shylock’s yarmulke that is an especially brilliant decision. Portia, disguised as a man, fills the stage with wit and presence she heretofore hasn’t, and easily goes head-to-head with the imposing Shylock.
But it is the way in which Antonio and his friends transition from wounded and angry men shouting a chorus of “Mercy!” from Shylock, to harshly delivering judgment on the same man when he is undone by the language of the law. Antonio announces his “merciful” stripping of Shylock’s fortune and religion with the same gusto as issuing a curse. Gratiano vindictively echoes Shylock’s earlier boasts. The band of friends sneers and takes such pleasure in Shylock’s downfall, that despite all the evil he has done, he becomes a broken and pitiable creature by the end. It is a momentous point in this production, and will surely leave audiences discussing it for miles on the drive home.
The sets, which consist only of three gilded doorframes, are a little disappointing. True, there is something to be said for Spartan set design, but the audience should be transported to Venice and Belmont. In this production, they, rather, they stay firmly in Wisconsin. The lack is more apparent in contrast with the very detailed and ornate props, as well as the magnificent costumes.
Unlike the sets, the costumes offer much more to the time and place of the play. The choice to spike up the hair of the band of young men is brilliant—very 16th century frat boy. They look like any group of friends who start to adopt a similar look, and provide a point of contrast when Bassanio, now with slicked back locks, shows up to gamble for Portia's hand in marriage. These costumes must require tremendous time and care. From flouncing petticoats under detailed embroidery, to doublets that range from merchant to lordly, the actors own their looks and live up to the high standards they demand.
And don’t discount the ensemble cast; keep an eye on the stage business going on in the corners, because it’s nearly as intriguing as the scene’s main actors. In particular, a blink-and-you-miss-it moment involving the second suitor’s attendant and a quill will have you rolling in the aisles.