Shylock’s daughter, Jessica (Phoebe Pryce) and Shylock (her real-life father Jonathan Pryce) in Shakespeare’s Globe’s The Merchant of Venice at Chicago Shakespeare Theater (photo by Manuel Harlan).
Director Jonathan Munby infuses the humor he brought to last February’s production of Othello into another play fraught with bigotry, a dram-edic procedural, a “Law and Order: Special Venetian Unit.”
The tight, sumptuous production based in a boat insurance predicament starts with a clarinet-driven klezmer-style musical party, driven by a talented four-piece band, perhaps to mitigate the anti-Semitism to come.
The lush period costumes, complete with tight bodices, pumpkin pants and codpieces by Sydney Florence, and simple, stark and powerful set, framed by gilt Corinthian pillars designed by Mike Britton, also underscore the beauty overlaying darkness themes.
Jonathan Pryce plays the titular usurer Shylock with nuanced rage, his revenge to seek his bond, a pound of flesh, deepened by his cruel treatment throughout: “the villainy you teach me I will execute.”
Pryce’s real-life daughter Phoebe also well plays the conflicted pretend progeny Jessica, “ashamed to be my father’s child,” who can’t steal his wealth, leave his house, convert to, and marry into, Christianity fast enough.
In addition to a monetary connection, there’s some homoerotic tension between older lender Antonio (Dominic Mafham) and lendee Bassiano (Dan Fredenburgh), who gets the girl Portia (a luminous Rachel Pickup) by winning the marriage three-chest Monte riddle left behind by her deceased father.
Portia and bestie Nerissa (Dorothea Myer-Bennett, employing perfect comic timing) are the few who get to play for laughs with ridiculous suitors at the Belmont manor, then with their new husbands, placing importance on ring retention with the passion of a Gollum.
The pair then don black legal robes to punch ingenious loopholes into Shylock’s suit, and turn the tables so drastically that he even loses his religion.
Stefan Adegbola as Shylock’s traitorous servant Launcelot also gets to mess with audience members by casting them as his “conscience” and “fiend” on stage, to see if he should “budge” or “budge not” to find a new boss: “That’s right, I’m looking at you and breaking the fourth wall.”
This exemplary, well-crafted and passionately performed play just toured New York City and Washington, DC, then leaves the US for performances in China, eventually ending in Venice. “So shines a good deed” – and this production – “in a naughty world.”
The Merchant of Venice has a sold-out run through August 14 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave.; info at 312-595-5600.