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By Phil Hall | August 8, 2005

The good news is that Paul Wagar’s “Shakespeare’s Merchant,” a modern dress version of “The Merchant of Venice,” is infinitely superior to that Al Pacino travesty which polluted the screen some months ago. The bad news is that this version is more of a half-clever oddity than a genuinely original interpretation of that infamous play.

Wagar streamlined the text considerably, which helps speed the drama along (admittedly, the original play meanders too much for its own good). He also openly acknowledges the homosexual undercurrents between Antonio and Bassanio, which was only hinted at in the Pacino debacle, and he even puts the characters in a full mano-a-mano smooch. Wagar is also blessed with Bruce Cornwall’s mature and balanced performance as Shylock, which offers the sublime mix of the devious and the pathetic which Pacino never managed to harvest.

Alas, in updating the text to today’s West Coast culture (“The Merchant of Venice, California?”), Wagar does not put the play into proper historic context. The film begins with what is supposed to be a montage of public displays of anti-Semitism, in which WASPy-looking beach boys pummel and kick a curly-haired Jewish guy on the sand and molest and urinate on a girl dressed in the modest garments one associates with Orthodox Jewry. But the scenes don’t look right: they appear to be isolated acts of stupid violence rather than a reflection of state-sanctioned anti-Semitism (complete with the isolating ghetto) which was prevalent in Shakespeare’s play.

And truth be told, outside of Cornwall the actors never feel all at home with the Shakespearean language. Especially Lorna MacNab, who turns Portia’s wit and quick thinking into a smug Valley Girl.

Modern dress versions of Shakespeare can word: “Richard III,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and especially John Farrell’s imaginative “Richard the Second” are proof of that. Sadly, this film is not in that league.

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