Elizabethans had a lot of problems with Jews. The biggest one, three hundred years after Edward I’s Jewish expulsion, may have been that they simply didn’t know any. The absence was convenient for dramatists in search of an easy target. Whether Shakespeare counts as such a dramatist has fueled debates ever since the casual anti-Semitism of the merchant of Venice and his pals has ceased to be universally shared by audiences. Barbara Gaines makes clear in her Chicago Shakespeare Theatre production of “The Merchant of Venice” that she is aware of the issue. But if she’s come to any conclusions, she doesn’t quite let us in on them. Gaines interrupts the action of the first few acts of the play with some ill-advised segues, including a tableau of several worshippers in the various postures of their faiths, a hurled “Faggot!” from the clown Lancelot Gobbo, and a gauntlet of spitters that Mike Nussbaum’s Shylock must run before intermission. After such hammer blows, who can sit still for the lengthy rigmarole about lost rings that closes the play? Nussbaum turns in a vigorous, nuanced performance, but while his Shylock fails to get his pound of flesh, he’s filched his accent from late-career Richard Burton and should probably give it back. Kate Fry’s Portia strains mightily after the quality of mercy, but never quite catches it. (John Beer)
This production is now closed.