Arthur Miller's conception of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman was a defeated bear of a man, wounded and roaring. As the decades ticked by, portrayals became less ursine than terrierlike -- think of tiny Dustin Hoffman's bellowing Willy. But the benchmark role of defeated salesmen was created in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, which has two of them: Antonio, the naval speculator, and Shylock, the Jewish usurer. Everything considered, Antonio is a pawn in the love story between his best friend, Bassanio, and the brilliant Portia. But Shylock dominates the tale. Undoubtedly there are a number of ways to handle the anti-Semitism in this part. Like Willy Loman, Shylock is driven mad by the loss of a child -- in this case, daughter Jessica, who elopes with Antonio's friend Lorenzo and then converts to Christianity, a betrayal exponentially worse than Biff Loman's failure to be "popular."
The themes of The Merchant of Venice would warm the heart of Stephen Bochco or David E. Kelly -- the pursuit of justice, money, love and male bonding are entwined. Portia is a smart but willful heiress, and her preferred suitor, Bassanio, needs money to woo her. His best friend, Antonio, would lend him the funds, but his fortune is tied up in oceangoing adventures. So Antonio must go to Shylock to borrow the money. Shylock already bears a grudge against Antonio, who lends his money without interest, thereby destabilizing the usurer's market. And so Shylock draws up the most famous lien in history, wherein a pound of flesh hangs in the balance.
At the St. Louis Shakespeare Co.'s oddly paced production of Merchant, Shylock, as played by John Contini, towers over the rest of the cast, literally and vocally. Draped and befurred in black, Contini offers vigor and volume -- qualities sadly lacking from the rather passionless performances of most of the ensemble. His rendition of the famous "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech has judicious, stately motion.
As Portia, Rachel Tiemann starts out tentatively, but her performance gains in confidence and credibility as she is ably assisted by Teresa Doggett as Nerissa, her robust companion. But why does she cock her head through the gloriously philosophical "The quality of mercy is not strained" speech? It's a good courtroom ploy for Ally McBeal but not for Portia, especially if she's passing as a male lawyer. Special mention must go to Drew Bell for a gymnastic and truly witty performance as Launcelot Gobbo, Shylock's erstwhile minion -- a scene-brightener every time. (Speaking of lighting, this production is too dim by half -- though still not obscuring the scruffier edges of the unchanging set and wrinkly costumes.)
It's hard to say what director Donna Northcott had in mind for this peculiar, dark comedy. Too often, the actors -- particularly the male leads -- garble their lines (despite extensive translation into "modern English"), and one can quite forget that the Bard wrote in iambic pentameter. In part, the venue is to blame -- the Grandel Theatre's auditorium appears to have several dead spots for unamplified performance (some of which were wisely roped off). More critically, Northcott's performers don't, well, seem to enjoy their speeches -- so where does that leave the audience?