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Playing Out Prejudice

One outstanding Old-World performance makes "Merchant" shine.


This is less of a problem for the Richmond Shakespeare Festival's new production at Agecroft Hall. Dan Istrate plays Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, with a razor-sharp sense of injustice. The forceful integrity of his character overwhelms many of the typical criticisms leveled against the play.

Though this Shylock talks passionately about the need to pile up money, you know it's not fueled by pure avarice but rather a futile attempt to even the score. When he arrives at court with a knife and demands the legal right to carve a pound of flesh from Antonio's chest, you'll almost hope that he gets it.

Istrate's performance is Old-World in more ways that one. From his thick accent to his melodramatic physicality, this is a performer who appears to have time-warped here from some distant era in theater. You can almost imagine this performance flickering through the decomposing nitrate frames of an early silent film.

Really, the only problem with Istrate's performance is how he outshines the rest of the cast. But in some ways that works against the anti-Semitism as well. His character is far more vivid and sympathetic than Christopher Dunn's plodding Antonio and the frivolous Bassanio, played by Grant Mudge. When Shylock forfeits his wealth and is forced to convert to Christianity, it's an unspeakable tragedy rather than a crowd-pleasing denouement.

Shirley Kagan puts a post-feminist spin on the character of Portia. She's comfortable with her femininity, but also bold enough to mix it up with the boys. Of course, given her confidence, it's unclear why she'd want anything to do with a lightweight like Bassanio.

Jonathan Spivey does a nice comedic turn as Gobbo, Shylock's servant. Like a number of performers in this play, he has a distinctive voice that adds considerable aural texture to the show.

Under the direction of costume designer Charlotte Zinser-Booth, the crew could probably assemble a For Dummies book on costuming a Shakespeare play. They've come up with numerous devices for creating period Venetian costumes on the cheap. With just a couple of exceptions, the tricks are surprisingly effective.

Larry Goldstein's direction is relaxed and unforced. Even without Istrate's performance, this is one of the better productions offered at the Richmond Shakespeare Festival in recent years.

Encore! Theatre Company has developed a pop-oriented approach to Shakespeare's comedies that is particularly effective for summer nights at Agecroft Hall. In "The Merchant of Venice," the center of gravity is located somewhere between comedy and tragedy, so Encore!'s capacity for goofiness is not misplaced. And they have Dan S

"The Merchant of Venice" continues through Aug. 1 at Agecroft Hall. Tickets are $19 each, call 1-866-227-3849.

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