Theater Review: THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (Theatre for a New Audience National Tour)

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by Tony Frankel on April 20, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles


Reinterpreting the setting of Shakespeare’s plays for modern audiences will always be a subject for debate: purists believe that a play’s relevance lies in the time in which it was written; modernists believe that updating the visuals helps a contemporary audience connect to the Romantic language; still, others may find the tried-and-true “doublet and hose” rendering to be constrictive when exploring a new analysis of the text. (Ironically, there is little debate as to Greek plays; rare is the classic interpretation that involves histrionics and masks.)

The Merchant of Venice, featuring F. Murray Abraham as Shylock, concludes its tour this week at the Broad in Santa Monica (after stops in NY, Boston and Chicago). Director Darko Tresnjak puts Italy smack dab in an International Wall Street-like setting, incorporating a technocopia of modern gadgets in a world that feels distinctly Americanized. This is a risky enterprise, for although this highly entertaining interpretation has brought amazing new life to line readings and subtext, the street bullying of Shylock (“a rich Jew”) outside of some skyscraping office building feels incongruous with a modern business ethic, even though anti-Semitism has hardly departed society.

Yet the evening works splendidly well as the focus of the play is not on the dilemma of Judeo-Christian relations, but rather on character subtext and ethics – which is very much to my liking. The inherent complications of the script (a drama wrapped in a romantic comedy), occasional gross characterizations (Portia’s suitor), and overt implications (homosexuality) do not diminish the areas in which the play soars, especially acting and storytelling of the highest order. In fact, there is an astounding lucidity to the text, and the schizophrenia of the tale allows for gripping drama as well as hardy laughter.

What makes the play problematic to a modern audience is that it is written as a comedy: How are we to stomach such abusive treatment of a Jew while romantic high jinks and jesters abound? Let the scholars argue about the complexities inherent in the script, Mr. Tresnjak is more interested in the complexities of the soul.

As Portia, Kate MacCluggage emits strength, intelligence and ardor equally well; she avoids the veneer of a steely, wise woman (disguised as a man) in the courtroom scene – instead, she struggles as she confronts Shylock. It is a vulnerability that only strengthens her character (it also helps that her servant Balthasar (haughty and funny Andrew Dahl) is poring over Law Books as she speaks).

Graham Hamilton is poignantly emotive when he shows us Bassanio’s love for both Portia and Antonio. The choice to have him kiss Antonio full on the lips in the courtroom was a brave but precarious choice, as we never doubted that the merchant who put up the fleshy collateral was willing to do anything for the man he loved. When Bassanio declares his desire for a lady, we can interpret Antonio’s sadness as a reaction to unrequited love, but the motivation of Bassanio’s smooch is enigmatic: was this a sympathetic “kiss before dying,” or were we watching someone seal their closet door shut? The underpinnings of the two men’s love (a glance, a touch, a vocal inflection) should have been fleshed out for the kiss to work better.

Conversations on cell phones and the floor of the stock market are not just clever conceits; they reinforce the ease with which gossip and greed are incorporated in our everyday lives. The infamous casks of gold, silver and lead are now MacBooks; what lies inside is displayed with crisp multi-media effects (set design: John Lee Beatty, sound: Jane Shaw, video: Matthew Myhrum). The mid-east entourage of The Prince of Morocco (Raphael Nash Thompson) is perfection, but The Prince of Arragon (Christopher Randolph) is a silly, lisping scoundrel who comes off as inauthentic.

For some time after this was written, the play was often referred to as The Jew of Venice. Shylock may be the Elizabethan view of a money-grubbing devil, but this Theatre for a New Audience production steers away from Shylock as the dominant character; instead, it reinforces that there is a duality to everyone’s nature.

This Merchant also emphasizes what The Bard himself said: “So our virtues lie in the interpretation of the time.” Ergo, let the classicists scoff, but based on the astounding work produced just in the last year, the play’s not the only thing: L.A.’s Independent Shakespeare Company was triumphant with Othello in Griffith Park – the sets were representational, but the wholly traditional performances fostered a powerful modern relevance; the slight Comedy of Errors at A Noise Within became a deliciously fun romp when Michael Michetti turned it into a Burlesque show with stock characters from Vaudeville; and The Tempest at Cutting Ball in San Francisco, thrilled with its discovery of new psychological dynamics by making Prospero a psychiatrist, whose office was in the bottom of a swimming pool!

Indeed, one of my favorite plays of this or any year is L’Enfant Terrible’s Hamlet, Prince of Puddles, a children’s theatre adaptation which introduces Shakespeare to a younger audience without alienating them. Critics need to get off their highfalutin horse and embrace innovation even as it may veer from what Shakespeare “had in mind.”

photos by Amy Graves and Gerry Goodstein

The Merchant of Venice
Theatre for a New Audience
The Broad Stage
1310 11th St. in Santa Monica
ends on April 24, 2011
for tickets, call 310.424.3200 or visit The Broad
for more info, visit Theatre for a New Audience

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