Modern 'Merchant' shines under stars

MURPHYS — Murphys Creek Theatre knows that Shakespeare can be hard to understand, so the company does its best to lighten things up from time to time.

The group's outdoor production of "The Merchant of Venice" is in modern dress and includes hip-hop dancing, laptops and text messaging.

Under director Graham Green's guidance, it all works and doesn't seem intrusive or gimmicky. It might help some younger audience members better enjoy the Bard's work.

Though it's classified as a comedy, "The Merchant of Venice" deals with weighty issues of religious persecution and justice vs. mercy.

The Jewish moneylender Shylock (Eric Baldwin) is constantly antagonized by his Christian neighbors. When the unfriendly Christian Antonio (Eric Owens) asks him for a loan, Shylock reluctantly agrees but only on the condition that if Antonio defaults, he gets a pound of Antonio's flesh.

Baldwin, who looks and acts like Richard Dreyfuss, is compelling as Shylock, making him sympathetic despite the character's considerable flaws. In his portrayal, we see that Shylock became so bitter because of the constant mistreatment he faced.

Shylock is ultimately outwitted by Portia, one of Shakespeare's most memorable female characters. Beautifully played by Allison Blackwell, she is feisty, smart, brave, funny and supremely confident.

Sean Lewis, who stands out in the cast for his height and spiky blond hair, provides much of the comedy in a dual role as Graziano and Aragon. In the first part, he's a coarse young man who doesn't quite know how to act in upper-class company. In the second, he's an arrogant Spanish aristocrat trying for Portia's hand in marriage.

Bruce Cole shows a talent for getting laughs as Launcelot Gobbo, Shylock's hyperactive servant.

As with most productions, there are some directorial choices that don't quite work. It's strange that Portia's Moroccan suitor is cast as a white woman (Misty Day). The lines about the Moroccan's dark complexion no longer make sense. And it's confusing for the audience because Day also plays Shylock's daughter.

Moreover, Green's set is drab and unattractive, offering little more than a few doorways.

Still, nothing in the region can beat the gorgeous venue. The production is at Stevenot Winery's lovely tree-ringed amphitheater, which allows plenty of space for picnicking. Shakespeare is rarely sweeter than when it is performed under the stars.

Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at 578-2313 or