For Everything Music and Theatre, even Shakespeare, you’ve come to the right place. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s 2017 season is now underway with “The Merchant of Venice” (seen May 30), the Bard’s serious comedy—or dramatic romcom, if you will. Until June 4 you can see Director Robert Cuccioli put a solid cast of 15 stalwarts through its paces in the intimacy of The F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, in Madison. This thoughtful production disturbs, perturbs and confounds, precisely as Shakespeare intended, raising all sorts of unanswered questions and leaving you flummoxed and wondering who are the good guys and who are the villains.

Happy ending?

Since Shakespeare considered this work a comedy, he obeyed the theatrical conventions of the time and ended it with three newly-married couples enjoying varying degrees of happiness.

The estimable cast

  • John Keabler and Melissa Miller portray the first couple, the noble Bassanio and the ultra-rich, peerless, perfectly flawed Portia.
  • Ian Gould (debut) and Rachel Towne masterfully play couple number two: Gratiano, the character you love to hate, and Nerissa, Portia’s companion. In costume Mr. Gould bears a strong resemblance to Jeffrey Bender. Oh, that they could unite in Shakespeare’s already-confusing “Comedy of Errors.”
  • The least-happily married couple are religiously divided: the so-called Christian Lorenzo, who Anthony Michael Martinez plays as quite the catch you’d be thrilled to throw back into the sea, and the Jewess Jessica, recently a Christian convert, who Amaia Arana brings to life. The compelling actress seems fast-tracked as a Company favorite headed for leading roles—and deservedly so.
  • Brent Harris is a regal Antonio, the title merchant, all gentlemanliness personified. Uh, except for the racist epithets. Oh, and there’s the spitting on the ‘outsider,’ Shylock, then groveling before him later for a loan in the fateful pound-of-flesh transaction that catalyzes the entire story. Other than that, though, a perfect gentleman.
  • Andrew Weems, the show’s rightful star, is Shylock. He delivers the central monologue, “Hath not a Jew eyes?” with gravitas that stirs compassion, if only it were not for his vengeful hatred of Christians who have wronged him. His crumple in defeat when so many “good Christians” debase, humiliate and strip him of his fortune, his ethnic heritage and even his religious faith are utterly heart-rending.
  • Deftly doing daffy double duty, Jeffrey M. Bender portrays Launcelot Gobbo and Prince of Arragon. As the former, his doltish physical comedy glistens; especially as the latter does he use his expressive face to telling effect, those mile-high eyebrows nearly scraping the ceiling. And why is it so amusing, in his “And so I have address’d me” speech, that he deliberately and exaggeratedly pronounces the silent ‘h’ in every appearance of the words “honour” and “honourable”?
  • Robert S. Gregory debuts as Duke of Venice and Old Gobbo, two roles as disparate as can be, the one elegant and sophisticated, the other, hayseed and hokey.
  • A towering Ademide Akintilo is the ebullient Prince of Morocco, whose haughtiness at losing all chances with Portia immediately dissolves into sobbing like a little girl.

Expert direction

Director Robert Cuccioli sees “The Merchant of Venice” as “a tragedy fighting hard to come out.” His actors deliver a fast-paced ebb and flow of dramatic tension and comic relief that allows for luxuriating in the ingeniously quicksilver poetic lines without lagging.

Confounding story

This controversial work about religious prejudice is as thought-provoking as it is just plain provocative. The terms "Christian" and "Jew" in their various forms occur 26 and 69 times, respectively. Sadly, only seven times do characters call Shylock by his name, preferring to call him merely “Jew,” when not also using a preceding derogatory adjective.

But when he says the word "Christian," it’s easy to perceive air quotes encasing it—the kind that tend to sneer.

Incidental music includes Edvard Grieg and, in a knowing nod to the next work—to be presented on the Outdoor Stage—Felix Mendelssohn’s overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

The Merchant of Venice,” by William Shakespeare, till June 4th, at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, in Madison N.J.