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Karl Hugh
Emily Trask (left) as Portia and Chelsea Steverson as Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice, 2010.

"THE MERCHANT OF VENICE," Utah Shakespearean Festival through Sept. 3 (800-752-9849 or www.bard.org); running time 2 hours, 35 minutes (one intermission)

CEDAR CITY — With a complex plot that's open to interpretation, "The Merchant of Venice" has been described as "Shakespeare's problem play."

It's difficult to classify and raises far more questions than answers.

Some may describe the piece merely as an anti-Semitic play with a bit of a love story thrown in.

But the times I've seen this play, and with this production more than any other, I can't help but feel for Shylock, and I'm never sure if that was the Bard's intent.

Perhaps that is the beauty of the play and of theater in general.

"Merchant" is about Shylock, a wealthy Jew who is approached by enemy Antonio for a loan. Antonio, whose money is wrapped up in shipping vessels, needs the funds to help his penniless friend Bassanio, who is eager to capture the hand of lovely heiress Portia.

Shylock agrees to the loan, reluctantly, but suggests in "merry sport" that should Antonio not be able to pay back the loan, Shylock is to get a pound of Antonio's flesh.

As any good story would go, Antonio's ships don't arrive in time, leaving him in breach of the contract. Shylock refuses to take anything as payment but Antonio's flesh.

They go to court, Shylock carrying a scale with which to weigh the flesh. He is relentless in his fight to use his knife near Antonio's heart. But Bassanio's new betrothed, dressed as a male doctor, arrives in court and proceeds to outwit Shylock.

Shylock not only loses his right to the flesh, which, obviously, is good, but his property is taken away, and his only allowed to live if he pays a fine. As the final twist, Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity — a fate far more painful than he can handle.

With grace and dignity, and with Antonio's cross slung around his neck, Shylock leaves the courtroom.

Tony Amendola, as Shylock, delivers one of the finer performances of the festival.

His speeches, wry delivery, pain at being called a dog and desperation at losing his daughter are moving and memorable, likely leaving you feeling more for Shylock than the Christians.

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Amendola's fine-turn as Shylock is supported by a cast of solid actors — Gary Neal Johnson (Antonio), Grant Goodman (Bassanio) and Ryan Imhoff (Gratiano).

The love-story portion of the tale, when two suitors (Dave Barrus and Jesse Easley) woo Portia, quickly became an audience favorite.

David Kay Mickelsen's costumes are filled with some of the richest, most beautifully lush fabrics I've ever seen.

This production of "The Merchant of Venice," however you choose to describe the tale, is a lovely staging of a play with a message as important today as it was when Shakespeare penned it.

e-mail: ehansen@desnews.com