If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

The actor who plays Shylock makes or breaks any production of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice." Richard Bauer, the Folger's Shylock, makes it magnificently, and to spare.

At various points in the action, Bauer, a slightly built man with curly black hair, brings to this difficult and ambiguous role: the arm-flailing energy of an upended bug, the stoop-shouldered shuffle of the world- weary, the straight-backed bearing of hubris and the twitching little grin of absolute fear. (He puts it all together -- Act III, scene (i) -- in the speech that begins, "I am a Jew.") Throughout, Bauer also lends the vengeful Shylock dignity and pathos.

It's an obsessive performance, fascinating to watch, and the centerpiece of a visually striking but unevenly acted production, directed by the Folger's artistic producer, John Neville-Andrews.

For this play of persecution and thwarted revenge, set off against a subplot of romance and false identity, Neville-Andrews appears to have pulled out all the stops. There are plucked lutes and singing to punctuate the proceedings, and rich-looking sets designed by Russell Metheny, after the gilded serigraphs of Yugoslav painter Mersad Berber.

Bary Odom's costumes, also inspired by Berber, range from apt to distracting. It's nice that the Folger has the money for such details as sunburst buckles on Bassanio's clogs, accenting John Wojda's dandified posturing, but the dresses and bonnets of Portia and her court -- which have the look of architecture -- might well have come from Venus. "How oddly he is suited!" Portia complains of an Englishman, recalling an old adage about a pot and a kettle.

As Portia, the much-sought heiress who loves Bassanio (unaccountably, as it seems from this production), Mikel Lambert is sweet-tempered and womanly, especially in the bit of silliness involving two suitors: the Prince of Morocco, played for low-camp by David DiGiannantonio, and the Prince of Arragon, done by Craig Paul Wroe with an exaggerated (and often unintelligible) Castilian accent. But in the guise of a doctor of law, Lambert is sharp as a saber -- "Thou shalt have nothing but the forfeiture, / To be so taken at thy peril, Jew" -- for the climactic courtroom scene in which Shylock vies for the hapless merchant Antonio's pound of flesh.

Jim Beard is solid if a tad stolid as Antonio, Shylock's good-hearted archenemy -- a nice fellow, by Elizabethan standards, even though, as Shylock reminds him, "You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog, / And spit on my Jewish gabardine." The play, of course, challenges audiences and actors alike with its apparent anti-Semitism. Richard Bauer meets the challenge with a complex, human character.

Things don't flag until the start of the last act -- a happy resolution after Shylock's departure. Given how the play tends to trouble modern audiences, plus the glaring ability-gap between Bauer and most of his colleagues, it's hardly surprising when the show runs out of steam -- just a few moments too soon.

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE -- At the Folger Theater through November 21.