All-female cast deftly navigates ‘Merchant of Venice’s’ rocky shores

Shylock (Rivka Levin) is outwitted by a costumed Portia (Destiny Freeman), posing as a doctor, during the climactic trial of Atlanta Shakespeare Company's "The Merchant of Venice." (Photos by Jeff Watkins)

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Shylock (Rivka Levin) is outwitted by a costumed Portia (Destiny Freeman), posing as a doctor, during the climactic trial of Atlanta Shakespeare Company's "The Merchant of Venice." (Photos by Jeff Watkins)

“The Merchant of Venice,” onstage at Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse through Aug. 14, is one of the Bard’s romantic comedies, but some of its 16th-century “laughs” no longer resonate because they’re based in anti-Semitic racism.

Modern productions succeed, as this all-female one does, by addressing the problematic qualities of the show head-on and as humanely as possible. In this staging, though there are plenty of laughs and joys to be found, the character of Shylock, the miserly Jewish moneylender, is played with tremendous sympathy, humanity and tenderness by an amazing Rivka Levin. Whenever she arrives onstage, the tone of the endeavor changes. The character’s suffering and destruction, for which audiences in Shakespearean times cheered, instead feels like the tragedy it is.

It feels as though Levin is playing the role of a lifetime, balancing Shylock’s years of mistreatment at the hands of the community against an unwavering, unmerciful thirst for revenge and justice against his abusers. Grounding the character in a wounded place while other characters curse and spit on Shylock, Levin’s work deserves as large of an audience as possible.

Shakespeare gave the character several monologues’ worth of pleas for compassionate treatment, equal standing in society and more kindness from his community. The characters in the play fail to succumb to these. But the Atlanta audience on opening night applauded several moments during Levin’s delivery of the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” passage, rich in emotion.

The plot, though, places Shylock as the antagonist. The title character of the piece is actually Antonio (Mary Ruth Ralston), a merchant expecting a big payday, should all of his ships come in with goods from around the globe. Antonio is in a somber mood, though, for reasons that he cannot expressly state.

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Antonio (Mary Ruth Ralston, left) and his friend Bassanio (Kelly Criss).

Credit: Jeff Watkins

Antonio (Mary Ruth Ralston, left) and his friend Bassanio (Kelly Criss).

Credit: Jeff Watkins

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Antonio (Mary Ruth Ralston, left) and his friend Bassanio (Kelly Criss).

Credit: Jeff Watkins

Credit: Jeff Watkins

Antonio’s dear friend Bassanio (Kelly Criss) comes to him asking for money. Bassanio wants to court and marry Portia (Destiny Freeman), an incredibly savvy heiress who is being courted by all sorts of suitors. She tests them with a game to determine their worthiness.

To get the money for Bassanio, Antonio guarantees a loan of 3,000 ducats to the moneylender Shylock. Shylock, though, hates Antonio for insulting him repeatedly and treating him as less than human. Shylock agrees to the loan, though, on the condition that Antonio give him a pound of his own flesh, should he default on payment.

Meanwhile, Shylock’s daughter, Jessica (Anna Holland), plots to rob her father and elope with a Christian named Lorenzo (Tyra Watkins).

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Rivka Levin as Shylock.

Credit: Jeff Watkins

Rivka Levin as Shylock.

Credit: Jeff Watkins

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Rivka Levin as Shylock.

Credit: Jeff Watkins

Credit: Jeff Watkins

With each new twist in the plot working against him, Shylock develops a desire for revenge against opportunistic, greedy and entitled Christians. When the ships don’t come in, Shylock demands payment from Antonio, and all the characters end up in court, where Antonio fears for his life.

Portia is the character positioned by Shakespeare as the most cunning, intelligent counter to Shylock. And Freeman’s Portia is delightful fun. Much of the show’s comedy and romance stems from her, and she gets many of the most cutting lines, delivered as asides to the audience. At one point, typical of the Tavern’s interactive style, Freeman recites her backhanded compliments about Portia’s suitors while pointing out members of the audience, and Freeman delivers the lines with the skill of a stand-up comedian handling hecklers.

Kati Grace Brown’s direction involves a lot of audience interaction and winking jokes in the text. The result is a lively production that’s just fun to watch.

Whenever the all-female troupe LadyShakes produces a show at the Tavern, the performers and crew embrace the opportunity with relish, uncovering aspects of the text that makes the approach feel fresh. The take on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” last year was raucous, and “The Merchant of Venice” sometimes boasts that same vibe.

When Bassanio and Portia or secondary comic couple Gratiano (Cameryn Richardson) and Nerissa (Kelly Clare Toland) spar onstage, the fights feel like an episode of Jerry Springer in Old English. And it works.

This production puts a very interesting twist upon the relationship of Antonio and Bassanio, suggesting that there’s an unrequited love at the heart of it. This nuanced detail, unexpressed until a climactic moment, gives new shade to the character of Antonio, and it provides the plot with a surprising amount of sense.

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Antonio (Mary Ruth Ralston, center) passionately embraces his friend Bassanio (Kelly Criss, left) during a trial in which Antonio’s life hangs in the balance. Gratiano (Cameryn Richardson, right) reacts.

Credit: Jeff Watkins

Antonio (Mary Ruth Ralston, center) passionately embraces his friend Bassanio (Kelly Criss, left) during a trial in which Antonio’s life hangs in the balance. Gratiano (Cameryn Richardson, right) reacts.

Credit: Jeff Watkins

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Antonio (Mary Ruth Ralston, center) passionately embraces his friend Bassanio (Kelly Criss, left) during a trial in which Antonio’s life hangs in the balance. Gratiano (Cameryn Richardson, right) reacts.

Credit: Jeff Watkins

Credit: Jeff Watkins

As Antonio, Ralston is quite good. She is a very physical performer, and her face is incredibly expressive. The character’s anti-Semitism is disgusting, yet Ralston gives her Antonio an entitled arrogance toward Levin’s Shylock. This communicates well, for Antonio was seen as right when the script was written. But now, times have changed. Ralston’s take is layered and complicated.

Criss is a warm, emotional presence onstage. Her Bassanio is the romantic hero, but he’s also gleefully clueless at moments. All through the second act, this leads to laughs and strong payoffs in the plot.

The ensemble, as a whole, seems to be having a blast with this production. At the Tavern, performers who’ve played leads in past shows still step up and deliver strong work in minor parts. Playing suitors and other minor characters, Jasmine Renee Ellis, fresh off “Lizzie” at Actor’s Express, and the very funny Alejandra Ruiz make an impact in a few scenes.

This “Merchant of Venice” offers many riches, most especially the work of Levin.


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