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Mark Nelson is lone highlight in contrived ‘Merchant of Venice’ at Shakespeare

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To maximize sympathy for Shylock, play him unsympathetically. Mark Nelson embodies this seemingly contradictory notion superbly in his unsparingly single-minded portrayal in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s otherwise forcibly contrived handling of “The Merchant of Venice.”

The production, imagined by director Ethan McSweeny as a Roaring Twenties tussle between immigrant factions of Little Italy and the Lower East Side, tries too desperately to squeeze conceptual pegs into Shakespearean holes. Aren’t we over the era of gimmicky, half-logical shifts of geography and time? Not that literalism has to reign autocratically — but why are all these New Yorkers going on about Venice?

You wonder if, somehow, the lavish embellishments applied to Shakespeare by some directors — even estimable ones of McSweeny’s caliber — are a tacit no-confidence vote in actors. Why else continually upstage their performances? Julia Coffey’s soigne Portia opens her mouth, but we fixate on her golf swing, complete with sound effects. Amelia Pedlow’s Jessica appears to be conversing with Daniel Pearce’s greasy Launcelot Gobbo, yet the focus is on the realistic car he keeps sliding out from under.

Then there’s the poor Prince of Aragon, portrayed with a flamboyant Castillian lisp by Vaneik Echeverria. Yes, Echeverria turns Portia’s suitor into an enjoyably fussy fop. But not only is he compelled to mangle lines — so that easy sentences become thickets such as, “Ath muth ath he dethervthes” — he must also deliver them while clutching a muzzle-licking Pekingese. You know what they say happens when you share a stage with a dog.

Watching Nelson hew, unencumbered, to his more challenging task, an audience gets a far more valuable essence of the play. Simmering with grievance and indignation from the start, this time bomb of a Jewish moneylender never hides behind deference or reveals a softer side. He walks the Rialto — tragically — with a living pain, so that you understand viscerally why he refuses to relent when the terrible terms of his contract with Antonio (Derek Smith) come due.

“The pound of flesh which I demand of him is dearly bought,” Nelson intones, in a voice reeking of conviction. For modern spectators, the sense of Jewish anger at millennia of persecution is not difficult to comprehend, so the anti-Semitism aimed at Shylock helps to humanize him. The quality of mercy is less in question here than the forces that have driven Shylock to this insatiable quest for vengeance.

In this regard, the transposition of “Merchant” to America in the early 20th century, as Nazism was taking shape in Germany, does make sense; we are permitted to respond to him more complexly than we would a mere Renaissance villain.

Indeed, the audience in Sidney Harman Hall emits an audible gasp after the legal tables turn on Shylock and he’s forced into Christian conversion.

“Merchant” is a very tricky play, and not only because of the potential for offensive Jewish caricature. Its comic romantic thrust sits extremely uneasily with the Shylock subplot, especially since its comedic heroine, Portia, is the instrument of Shylock’s humiliation. The plots nevertheless are linked, in the idea of the selling of human relations. The fate of Portia, like that of Shylock, is tied up in a money deal: she bides her time on her Belmont estate, waiting for a wooer to solve the riddle cooked up by her late father and thus win her and her fortune.

McSweeny builds a strong case for the insularity of a Lower East Side that’s suspicious of the Gentile world, which is supposed to be a lure for young people such as Shylock’s daughter, Jessica. But the Little Italy he conjures is too blurry: The actors in varyingly convincing New York accents and “Guys and Dolls” get-ups don’t seem to relate to one another in any definable way. Are they businessmen? Hoodlums? And why would sophisticated Portia automatically fall in with them?

Andrew Lieberman’s set adds concrete obstacles. The epic-size Harman stage no doubt throws down its own gauntlet to designers, but the massive staircase Lieberman has placed at center stage feels out of scale with the intense scenes of the play and forces the director to have actors awkwardly hiking up and down it. Jennifer Moeller’s costumes, particularly the looks she creates for the goofier candidates for Portia’s hand, imbue the proceedings with the required panache.

Some of the less flavorful performances fail to justify the fancy duds, though Smith’s Antonio gives a persuasive whiff of effete mystery, and Aubrey Deeker’s Gratiano makes for a lively gadabout. As the pivotal Portia and the object of her affections, Bassanio, Coffey and Drew Cortese come across a bit blandly.

The evening’s most satisfying scene happens to be the play’s most famous, the courtroom encounter in which the disguised Portia saves Antonio’s life and ruins Shylock’s. It is on the strength of Nelson’s moving and dignified turn in this and other scenes that this “Merchant” manages to cast a meaningful pall, even if it tends to move in a lot of muddier directions.

marksp@washpost.com

The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare. Directed by Ethan McSweeny. Lighting, Marcus Doshi; music and sound, Steven Cahill; choreography, Karma Camp; voice and dialect, Deena Burke; wigs, Dave Bova. With Drew Eshelman, Liz Wisan, Benjamin Pelteson, Tim Getman, Andy Murray and Matthew Carlson. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through July 24 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW.

Visit www.shakepearetheatre.org or

call 202-547-1122.

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