The Merchant of Venice
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
March 3, 2011
It’s hard not to be a little wary of modern-dress Shakespeare, but less than a minute into Darko Tresnjak’s spectacularly grim production of The Merchant of Venice any fears one might have subside.
Theater for a New Audience has wisely chosen to give this Merchant a second life (it was originally produced in repertory with The Jew of Malta in 2007) and after it finishes its run at Pace University’s Michael Schimmel Center for the Performing Arts, it will embark on a three-city tour. That this version, which stars F. Murray Abraham as Jewish moneylender Shylock, comes so close to the closure a few weeks ago of the Public Theater presentation of Daniel Sullivan’s well-received, sturm-und-drang vehicle for Al Pacino, is a bold move, and comparisons will inevitably be drawn.
I won’t be doing that, as I didn’t like that one when I saw it in Central Park; I was bored to tears. Tresnjak’s, with a modern Venice by way of Wall Street, is a true edge-of-your-seat experience. The town is populated with vile human beings, phones glued to their hands, obsessed with profit, wary of anyone and everyone. Knowing glances and arched eyebrows are shot amongst the other business-suit clad gents when Antonio, the titular merchant, puts his hands on young Bassanio’s shoulders as they chat about his need for funds to woo Portia, the heiress of Belmont. She is a milky-white trust fund baby unafraid to hide her feelings about her non-white suitors, to the quiet chagrin of her non-white waiting-woman Nerissa. Everyone, no matter what creed or color they are, is virulently anti-Semitic, with their anger pointed at one person in particular.
Look at the joy on Abraham’s face when daughter Jessica kisses Shylock’s cheek or the pride as he sings the traditional Sabbath prayer shalom aleichem. This is a man just as devoted to his daughter and his faith as he is to his ducats. Jessica’s desertion and subsequent marriage to a non-Jew is a blow from which his mental health cannot quite recover. In a single breath, Abraham’s nuanced Shylock goes from piteous to sinister and back. He is used to society spitting in his face and he’s ready to spit right back.
As Portia, Kate MacCluggage is a leggy ice queen in a little black dress. Calm, cold, and calculating, she fancies herself a number of steps ahead of everyone else, until the courtroom scene, when, disguised in a pantsuit, she witnesses her new husband Bassanio plant a passionate kiss on Antonio’s lips. The homosexual overtones are very apparent between Tom Nelis’s wistful Antonio and Lucas Hall’s young Bassanio. That Hall and MacCluggage are spectacularly mismatched as a couple adds yet another dimension to their relationship.
Christen Simon Marabate is nicely understated as Nerissa, though Ted Schneider, her Gratiano, pushes much too hard when it comes to “drunk acting.” Melissa Miller and Vince Nappo are quite affecting as Jessica and Lorenzo, a relationship which looks as though it’ll work out at first. Jacob Ming-Trent brings a rapper’s rhythm to the vile dialogue of Launcelot Gobbo.
John Lee Beatty’s sleek design adds to the Wall Street milieu (the suitor scene is performed using 3 MacBooks instead of caskets), and Linda Cho’s costumes are spot-on. David Weiner’s evocative lighting and Jane Shaw’s menacing musical compositions and sound set the mood from the opening moments.
From the bizarre allegations levied against crazy “warlock” Charlie Sheen to the “I love Hitler” rant of former Dior designer John Galliano, anti-Semitism is still very present in today’s society. Sheen has denied those allegations (stating in part that his entire team is made up of Jews) and Galliano, publicly denounced by the likes of Natalie Portman, was fired. This reaction proves one thing: while it still exists, it won’t be tolerated.