By Suzi Brozman / sbrozman@atljewishtimes.com

Doug Kaye for Atlanta Jewish Times

Doug Kaye is Shylock and Amee Vyas is Portia in the Shakespeare Tavern’s “The Merchant of Venice.” (photo by Jeff Watkins)

We’re all used to seeing Jews portrayed on television and in movies and not always so sympathetically. You want sympathy? Stay away from the New American Shakespeare Tavern, whose production of “The Merchant of Venice” is perhaps the most anti-Semitic, nasty show available.

And yet it works. If you haven’t seen it, you must. It’s part of our heritage, and it’s presented in a nonjudgmental way.

Doug Kaye, the Jewish actor who plays Shylock, said: “He is a yiddisher kopf. He needs a particular outlook on life. He’s not particularly religious, but I’ve tried to make his speech fit into the slightly alien pattern that is his alone, a special way of doing it, among all of Shakespeare’s characters.”

The tavern mimics a theater of Shakespeare’s day — big tables, not rows of theater seats, and people moving around, missing only the drunks, women selling their “wares” and assorted livestock wandering among the tables. I’m told people rested on piles of hay or on the floor to watch early productions; no, thanks.

The tavern serves food, and quite good it is, so if you don’t keep kosher, you don’t have to eat before braving the traffic to get downtown.

I was curious to see how the tavern would present this difficult play. It is difficult to balance the play’s comic moments with its overtly tragic theme.

I noticed that the cast used a pejorative tone when referring to “the Jew.” There were no moans or hisses from the audience, no twirling of mustaches, but the hate and contempt were there. Or was it just my Jewish sensibility?

Director Laura Cole told me she wanted the play unvarnished and real. She said this play has no heroes, and she wants the audience to see the characters with their clay feet intact. Let the viewers come to their own conclusions.

Kaye said each audience reacts differently. But his portrayal forces the viewer to respond. Shylock is not a sympathetic character, despite losing his daughter, his money and eventually his religion. But neither is he an unvarnished villain.

Kaye conveys humanity with the arrogance to let the audience know that, as his character says, “if you prick him, does he not bleed?”

The whole cast works like a clock, as one would expect from a troupe that has acted together through numerous plays. The comic timing and the expressions all feel right.

A few actors are outstanding. Amee Vyas as Portia gives as moving a delivery of “The quality of mercy is not strained” speech as I’ve ever heard, yet she is hilarious when dealing with her assorted suitors.

Kaye had my attention, and when Antonio rips the kippah from his head, signifying his forced conversion, Kaye keeps a semblance of dignity and tragedy, taking me back 400 years.

Kudos to Laura Cole, whose direction is magnificent. She manages to combine tragedy and comedy in a believable way, and after 20 years of directing Shakespeare, she has it right. She even has helped choreograph dances for Temima High School plays.

This is a show not to be missed, but I wouldn’t suggest taking little children. It’s just too long and difficult to understand unless you speak Elizabethan English at home. I noticed a good bit of fidgeting.

What: “The Merchant of Venice”

Where: New American Shakespeare Tavern, 499 Peachtree St., Atlanta

When: Wednesday through Sunday, through May 24

Tickets: $14 to $39; www.ShakespeareTavern.com or 404-874-5299