First Nighter: The Berkshires's See-Worthy "Merchant of Venice" and "An American Daughter"

THE BERKSHIRES--Jonathan Epstein, white hair flowing below the collar of his robe, is as dignified a Shylock as you'd want in Tina Packer's Shakespeare & Company production of William Shakespeare's always troubling tragedy, The Merchant of Venice. As he negotiates his path through severely anti-Semitic city, often being spit on and knocked to the ground, this Shylock is morally superior to everyone he encounters--and that eventually includes Portia (Tamara Hickey).

His integrity, challenged as it is by his tormenters, remains intact even as his daughter Jessica (Kate Abbruzzese) abandons him for a rowdy Lorenzo (Deaon Griffin-Pressley). At his trial--something akin to a kangaroo court--his determination to claim the pound of flesh owed him by Antonio (John Hadden) is all the more credible as he withholds mercy from those who have constantly denied him that courtesy.

This is a first-rate performance during which Epstein's impersonation includes his speaking in today's Received Pronunciation all but during one brief sequence in which he mocks his assailants by speaking in the manner he knows they expect to hear and even think they always hear.

Epstein's is the appearance around which the other actors circulate, some of them also strong an denizens of this particularly cosmopolitan Venice and some of them lacking the necessary authority. Among those rising to Epstein's heights are (Jason Asprey) as a Cockney Graziano and (Bella Merlin) as Nerissa, Portia's good companion.

Among those lacking the wherewithal to fill the assignments with the necessary power is Hickey, whose Portia doesn't carry the lilt and determination required. Also Packer asks her and Shahar Isaac as triumphant wooer Bassanio to behave like giddy adolescents when he arrives to take the which-box-holds-Portia's-likeness test. They only compound the giddiness after he passes it. Thomas Brazzle's Launcelot Gobbo seems shaped by his being informed that aspects of The Merchant of Venice are comic. He carries on accordingly, doing his utmost to get laughs no matter what. His technique could be called jest-iculating, and it's excessive.

Packer, as usual, is full of ideas. Her overall approach to a boisterous interpretation works much of the time right down to small things, such as having the minions who bring in and remove those all-important gold, silver and lead boxes wear ghostly black shrouds and white masks. The inclusion of 20th-century tunes like "Some Enchanted Evening" isn't so welcome.

Another facet Packer plays up is a more crucial mistake. She's not the first--far from it--who's underlined a homosexual attraction between Antonio and Bassanio. She may be the only director so far who has them kiss passionately in the early scene where the former learns the latter needs the funding that leads to reviled Shylock's becoming a handy usurer.

Such passion eventually overshadows the Bassiano-Portia puppy-love interactions. Certainly inadvertently, Packer suggests that Bassiano's love for Portia is tepid in contrast to his regard for the otherwise vastly unlikable Antonio. It can even look as if Bassanio is more interested in Portia for her standing in the community than for herself

Worse, at the trial when the disguised Portia declares that Shylock has the right to extract his pound of flesh, she observes the physical tenderness Bassanio instantly exhibits towards the condemned Antonio. What may cross a viewer's mind is the likelihood that Portia will naturally begin to wonder how far the out-and-out bromance extends. Needless to say, this isn't anything like what Shakespeare's intended.

Nonetheless, when a Shylock is portrayed with the finesse that Epstein displays, the quality of mercy for everything else needn't be strained.
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It's obvious why, during this election year, the Williamstown Theatre Festival deciders, settled on reviving An American Daughter, Wendy Wasserstein 1997 play. Lyssa Dent Hughes (Diane Davis) has been handed a hammer for the glass ceiling in the form of a nomination as surgeon general, but plot complications get in the way of an easy confirmation.

To start, she happens to catch successful author/husband Walter Abrahmson (Stephen Kunken) kissing second-generation feminist Quincy Quince (Kerry Bishé) during a get-together in the well-appointed Georgetown living room Derek McLane has designed for her.

Before the first act ends, that low-income obstacle, along with other small problems that have accrued around her--characters like desperate for a man Jewish-African-American best friend Judith B. Kaufman (Saidah Arrika Ekuolona), otherwise friendless gay pal Morrow McCarthy (Roe Hartrampf), Senator dad Allen Hughes (Richard Poe) and not-so-dimwitted Southern bride Charlotte "Chubby" Hughes (Deborah Rush)--get to feeling like a pallid difference between what's happening politically in Wasserstein's fictional world and what's occurring daily and on a much more inflammatory scale in today's very real political world.

Yes, Wasserstein's signature way with smart and frequently knee-slapping dialog prevails from the get-go, but it's not until the second act that the playwright ramps up the proceedings to a racy level where parallels become apparent between what Lyssa--Walter calls her "Lizard," ugh!) faces the kind of public disapproval Hillary Clinton regularly undergoes.

The chatty, thoughtless Morrow spills (spoiler on the way) to television newsman Timber Tucker (Jason Danieley) the fact that many years earlier (here's that spoiler) Lyssa neglected a jury summons. The oversight becomes a national disgrace that Lyssa must explain in a Tucker interview, overseen by spin-doctor Billy Robbins (Will Pullen).

The interview--for which Lyssa has put on a pastel suit and a hairband--is where both she and Wasserstein come into their own. Lyssa decides she'll be herself and not boast about baking cookies and the traditional hausfrau like. (Psst: Remember the similar Hillary episode?) How Lyssa rises to the occasion by choosing not to rise to the bait is worth the price of admission. (Would that nominee Clinton would give her thoughts so effectively at least once on these kinds of matters.)

Not one of the playwright's most convincing manuscripts, An American Daughter is marred by the stage time given over to Judith and her doubts (perhaps geared as another aspect of female low self-esteem) and out-loud-and-proud Morrow, whose presence becomes more a contrived plot device than anything else.

There's also a problem with Davis's being cast in a role for which she looks too young. (Kate Nelligan originated the role.) When Quincy and Lyssa initially face off on the subject of being from different feminist generations, they look more like sisters at the same women's protest march. (Jessica Pabst's costumes do go some way towards differentiating the two.)

Watching An American Daughter, directed by Evan Cabnet with proper pace, a spectator might begin to wonder whether, were the late Wasserstein alive today, she would be inclined to update the work to take advantage of the current dramatically acrimonious political climate. As someone always attuned to the shifting zeitgeist, she very well may have done just that.