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Theater review: 'The Merchant of Venice' at Festival Amphitheater

August 13, 2009 |  5:00 pm

Merchant of Venice It is perhaps inevitable that "The Merchant of Venice" will provoke audiences, though the Festival Amphitheater production in Garden Grove approaches it with admirable even-handedness. Shakespeare Orange County briskly presents the Bard's dark-tinged comedy of romance, economic necessity and intolerance.

The principal negative issue remains anti-Semitism, as directed toward Jewish moneylender Shylock (an imposing Michael Nehring). Technically a supporting role, the character is critical and not just for providing the funds that title merchant Antonio lends to nobleman Bassanio so he can woo wealthy Portia, the play's heroine.

What often rankles is how Shylock goes from object of abuse to affronted avenger. Credit Nehring and director Thomas F. Bradac that this too-often overblown figure emerges with his dignity intact and motives understandable, most vivid in the "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech and courtroom harangue.

He has a worthy opponent in Carl Reggiardo's silken-voiced Antonio, while real-life married pair Ryan and Kim Shively subtly exploit their natural affinity to give Bassanio and Portia's romance noteworthy urgency. Stephanie Robinson and Greg Ungar make acerbic servants, with Daniel Tobin's word-pointing Moroccan prince, Alyssa Bradac's loopy Lancelot Gobbo and Jack Messenger's sonorous Venetian ruler typifying a proficient troupe.

Technical values are restrained but effective, especially costume designer Kathryn Wilson's beautiful array of Elizabethan attire. Director Bradac cannot keep the narrative plot convolutions from seeming anti-climactic after Antonio's trial, and despite the care he takes, the text and its antiquated Renaissance Christian attitudes can still raise hackles. Still, it's an uncluttered, wholly respectable reading, especially recommended to first-timers and students.

-- David C. Nichols

"The Merchant of Venice," Shakespeare Orange County at Festival Amphitheater, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove. 8:15 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays (7:30 p.m. pre-show). Ends Aug. 22. $32. (714) 590-1575. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Photo (from left):  Kimberly Blair Shively as Portia, Michael Nehring as Shylock, Ryan Shively as Basanio and Carl Reggiardo as Antonio. Credit: Mark Samala