MADISON, NJ – “The Merchant of Venice” has plenty to say about prejudice, suspision, money and cruelty.

Yet it has redeeming features as well, with Portia’s “quality of mercy” speech and Shylock’s insistence that Jews are individuals with feelings, thoughts and emotions as much as any other man or woman.  

Director Robert Cuccioli has gathered a distinguished cast to explore the contradictions and timeless appeal of this Shakespeare play. Brent Harris is Antonio, the Merchant of Venice, who has offered to help his friend Bassanio resolve a debt, but doesn’t have the funds on hand. He asks Bassanio to find a loan guarantor, who happens to be Shylock. During the play, Harris runs the gamut of an assured merchant who thinks he will not need to face Shylock’s exacting demands to a terrified victim.  

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Antonio is now in debt to the money lender Shylock (Andrew Weems) who has demanded a pound of flesh if Antonio cannot pay the bond. Later we learn that Antonio’s ships are presumably lost at sea.  By now, Shylock has become adamant that he wants his “pound of flesh” from Antonio, not financial reimbursement. A court hearing ensues.

Weems in his speech on “hath not a Jew eyes” is somber and memorable. Coming to the court is Portia, played with assertiveness by Melissa Miller, who is disguised as a learned arbitrator or Doctor of Law.  Her insistence on the letter of the law changes the ground rules of the court. She is accompanied by Nerissa, Rachel Towne, her hand maid disguised as a law clerk during the courtroom scene.  As payment, Portia demands the ring she has given to Bassanio, who had promised he would never remove it.  This deception leads to more complications.  

There are many pairings and pretences. Most amusing is Portia’s test among three suitors, presented with   caskets of gold, silver and lead. “All that glitters is not gold” is one of those pearls found among Shakespeare’s words. Jeffrey M. Bender is hilarious as Prince of Arragon, who thinks he has all the answers in his pompous, pretentious quest for Portia’s hand. Ademide Akintilo is Prince of Morocco, who also chooses one of the more valuable caskets and soon learns that he has lost his chance for winning Portia.   She is really in love with Bassanio (John Keabler) and Antonio’s longtime friend.

In the meantime, Shylock’s daughter, Jessica (Amaia Arana) has fallen in love with Leonardo (Byron Clohessy) and runs off with him after stealing from her father. That romance appears not to be as happily resolved as those involving Portia and Nerissa. Still, it makes for an intriguing twist and shows us another dimension of Shylock.

Director Cuccioli has updated the setting to 1910, which brings the play closer to our own time without losing any of its impact. Costumes by Candida Nichols are consistent with the period and enhance the fast moving action. Portia in her purple gown is stunning against a backdrop of gold and lavender. Lighting by Michael Giannitti illuminates various scenes and the scenic design of Brian Ruggaber is a fascinating turntable with archways, staircases, filigreed balconies and other touches to create the aura of Venice.

Kari Berntson’s sound design features lush violin music and subtle effects as the play’s emotions and messages shift from place to place.

“The Merchant of Venice” continues at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, located on the campus of Drew University, through June 4. For tickets, call 973-408-5600 or visit ShakespeareNJ.org.