When two known quantities, say protons, collide in a particle accelerator, the energy from the impact produces not fragments but entirely new and even unknown entities. So it is with Peter Sellars’s monumental and exhausting staging of Shakespeare’s brutal The Merchant of Venice: the collision between this 400-year-old text and the director’s contemporary sensibility–replete with dozens of high-tech microphones, an omnipresent hand-held camcorder, a handful of hip hop Latino boys, and excerpts from the Rodney King video–gives this perennially misunderstood play a scorching immediacy. Although the program says the play takes place in Venice Beach, it’s actually set nowhere but on the Goodman’s stage, which has been stripped bare. Lights and cables are plainly visible, the cast wear what could be their street clothing, and several scenes begin with actors reciting their lines dispassionately into standing microphones. Unable to hide behind costumes, accents, or scenery, the performers lay bare the intricate psychological convolutions that make contemporary America as intolerant a place as Shakespeare’s Elizabethan Venice (making the New York Times’s admonition that Sellars should feel more and think less particularly absurd). In his most inspired directorial choice, Sellars cast African American actors as the Jews, showing how blindly irrational prejudice is: after all, it doesn’t matter whether these characters’ labels are accurate when the people doing the labeling are only projecting their own hateful qualities onto them. Yes, lots of people left during intermission the night I attended, but I’ve never considered the Goodman subscription audience the ultimate arbiter of quality. Certainly the production is not without faults, particularly its creeping pace during the first two and a half hours, but rarely has a piece of theater left me thinking and feeling so deeply about issues most directors would rather ignore. Goodman Theatre, 200 S. Columbus, 443-3800. Through November 5: Wednesdays-Thursdays, 7:30 PM; Fridays-Saturdays, 8 PM; Sundays, 2 and 7:30 PM; Tuesday, November 1, 7:30 PM; additional matinee Saturday, November 5, 2 PM. $25-$38.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.