The Merchant of Venice
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
February 3, 2007
The most striking thing about Theatre for a New Audience's solid new revival of The Merchant of Venice is its depiction of Shylock, the Jewish money-lender. Long considered one of Shakespeare's most controversial figures, due largely to the Bard's perceived anti-Semitic take on him, Shylock is often portrayed as an unrepentant villain. Under Darko Tresnjak's direction, however, Shylock gets a makeover, and is reinvented as the sympathetic victim of a prejudiced and greedy Christian society. Tresnjak's sober, modern day rendering of Merchant takes Shylock's side from the start, making everyone else look like the collective bad guy. It's a refreshing take that works very well for this familiar play.
The plot of Merchant (if you don't know it, check out this comprehensive synopsis) hinges on a loan that Antonio, a wealthy Venetian merchant, receives from Shylock. Antonio agrees to repay it within three months lest he forfeit one pound of his own flesh. There are several reasons for this grisly deal, first and foremost of which is Shylock's desire to exact an extreme price from a man he hates (Antonio has previously spit on him in public and called him "dog"). Antonio is also confident his various business ventures will allow him to repay the loan threefold in half the time. He intends to give the money to his friend, Bassanio, who wants it so he can woo and marry Portia, a rich and beautiful heiress.
Why would Antonio help his friend execute such a cockeyed plan? Because he loves Bassanio. Despite the absence of hope that this brash, reckless youth will reciprocate his feelings, Antonio assists him anyway. Love makes people do weird things sometimes.
That's just the tip of the iceberg in Merchant, a play that luxuriates in crazy logic. There are two Jewish-to-Christian conversions (one voluntary, the other not so much), a bizarre courtship ritual enforced by the mandates of the will left by Portia's deceased father, and a pair of women disguised as men under high pressure circumstances. Then, of course, there's the whole pound of flesh scenario, which turns menacing when Antonio defaults on the loan. Intent on collecting his bond, Shylock demands that justice be served (while brandishing a knife, no less) in the play's climactic courtroom scene.
This current production is transplanted from 1590s Venice to the near future. Technology is everywhere: video screens hover over John Lee Beatty's sharp, angular set; three laptops serve as the caskets Portia's suitors must face in order to win her hand; her waiting-woman, Nerissa, scrolls through photos of the potential callers on her cell phone. Costumer Linda Cho modernizes the play by transforming Antonio and Shylock into power-suited financiers, while Bassanio and his entourage are outfitted like hotshot brokers. These are all nice touches that underline the characters' emphasis on money and status.
Tresnjak starts his pro-Shylock campaign right away by making Antonio a gruff, no nonsense (read: unlikable) businessman. Bassanio and his cronies are made into spoiled yuppies hedonists. Even the usually soulful Portia comes off a bit shallower than usual. Little wonder, then, that when Shylock appears the audience plugs right into him. He is a man of both spiritual and domestic conviction, despite being surrounded by a world that prizes neither. In Tresnjak's hands, the Jewish characters take their faith seriously, while the Christians are portrayed as greedy and spiritually bankrupt (a pointedly topical statement, considering our country's current political and religious climate). But, at least they know it. By the time Shylock accepts his humiliating penalty in court, the Christians realize they've done him wrong. The sight of him crouched shamefully on the floor, his yarmulke spat upon next to him, is a hollow victory for them.
One misstep Tresnjak makes, however, is ignoring the gay subtext between Antonio and Bassanio. They go through all of Merchant more like mentor and student until the courtroom scene, when they share a surprising and dramatically unearned kiss. But, more than anything, the lack of sexual tension between them makes Antonio's kindness towards him all the more puzzling.
F. Murray Abraham approaches Shylock with compassion, and plays him with a controlled, sympathetic focus. Shylock is an outsider who's been wronged by the system he decides to take on, and Abraham plays that angle for all it's worth, giving a great performance.
The rest of Merchant's talented cast shows that there is, indeed, no such thing as a small part. Kenajuan Bentley gets some well-earned laughs as Shylock's servant, Launcelot Gobbo, now an urban foot messenger. Ezra Knight is equally funny as a Richard Branson-type suitor of Portia's. Nicole Lowrance is moving as Shylock's refugee daughter, Jessica. And, as Portia's servant, Balthazar, Arnie Burton nearly steals every scene he's in with a never ending array of asides, double takes, and deadpan silence.
Strangely, the three characters that register the least are Antonio, Bassanio, and Portia. Tom Nelis's Antonio is too one-dimensional and poker-faced, while Saxon Palmer and Kate Forbes are a little too colorless as Bassanio and Portia, respectively. And, none of them reach the level of urgency needed to pull off the play's conclusion.
Still, this Merchant is more immediate and timely than most other productions of it I've seen. Tresnjak's strong vision points the way for future productions to definitively tackle Shylock, and this difficult play, once and for all.