THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, Shakespeare Repertory. Much more traditional than Peter Sellars’s controversial, slowed-down, updated staging at Goodman Theatre three seasons ago, director Barbara Gaines’s production of Shakespeare’s 400-year-old drama is also far less probing into the play’s continually perplexing religious and cultural conflicts. Setting the story in a Great Gatsby-esque milieu, evoked by Nan Cibula-Jenkins’s gorgeous 20s fashions, Gaines offers a briskly paced but rather shallow rendition. Its strongest asset by far is Richard Russell Ramos’s mercurial performance as the Jewish moneylender whose hateful bargain with the Christian debtor Antonio brings about his downfall: this wry, crafty Shylock’s descent into self-destructive obsession as he pursues his claim to a pound of Antonio’s flesh makes the stage crackle in a way the rest of the show does not.
Part of the problem is Gaines’s lack of sympathy for the Christian characters. By emphasizing their condescension toward and contempt for the Jewish figures, she makes us less interested than we should be in their romantic ups and downs: the bulk of the story, they also anchor the text’s recurrent images of spiritual versus material connection. And the tone of the evening is erratic, veering from Ramos’s complex, quirky line readings to such heavy-handed dramatic touches as a final tableau of the dispossessed Shylock at prayer to broadly caricatured comedy. If Gaines imposed on Shylock the music-hall stereotyping she forces on the Spanish Prince of Arragon, she’d be picketed by the Anti-Defamation League.