Theater review: 'The Merchant of Venice' at the Broad Stage
Shakespeare wrote a play about Wall Street greed and double-dealing, right? You’re likely to answer in the affirmative if you see Darko Tresnjak’s sleek modern-dress staging of “The Merchant of Venice,” starring F. Murray Abraham as a Shylock who seems to be brooding as much about credit default swaps as the toxic prejudice that threatens this Jewish moneylender's livelihood, not to mention his dignity.
This Theatre for a New Audience touring production, which opened Thursday at the Broad Stage and is worth catching if you can stomach the play, holds the mirror up to our conspicuously consuming nature. Smartphones are fondled by playboys in slick suits, fancy laptops beckon like genies in a bottle, and personal assistants don headsets to direct the flow of human traffic dancing attendance on their wealthy bosses.
The anachronisms aren’t a problem because Shakespeare’s imagination is inherently metaphoric and the analogies of Tresnjak’s staging are generally apt. Money makes the Venetian world of “Merchant” go round every bit as much as it does our own, and the production merely updates the outward forms of material decadence. If there are hitches here — and how can there not be with this notoriously problematic play? — they have less to do with the director’s modernizing gloss than with the inherent difficulty of pulling together the work's disparate parts.
Abraham has such splendid fluency with the play’s language that it’s possible to actually see his Shylock thinking out his utterances. For some actors, the words are such a stretch that the most you can hope for is clarity of diction and the occasional infusion of vocal color. Abraham’s command allows him to take it a step further — he makes us privy to ideas as they’re being hatched in the improvisatory flow of his character’s speech.
Shylock is both a comic monster and a spat-upon outsider. The question in performance is always which side will predominate. Abraham strives for a balance between the two.
He begins in a more calculating vein, hoping to melodramatically ensnare his enemy Antonio (a somber Jonathan Epstein) with an interest-free loan requiring a pound of flesh if the bond isn’t repaid in time. For those unfamiliar with the basic tale, Antonio, intensely devoted to his friend Bassanio (an ardent Graham Hamilton), agrees to finance the broke young man’s expedition to woo the wealthy heiress Portia (Kate MacCluggage) in Belmont. But with his assets all at sea, he’ll have to get the money from Shylock, for whom he has an irrational hatred.
That hatred compels Shakespeare to humanize Shylock. The more he suffers, the less possible it is to relate to him as a caricature. And indeed Abraham’s portrayal rises in pathos after Shylock’s daughter, Jessica (Melissa Miller), absconds with Lorenzo (a strong Vince Nappo), one of the Christian wastrels, and Portia, in disguise as a learned judge, intervenes in the famously unmerciful trial scene and not only ruins Shylock’s vengeful fun but strips him of his very identity.
My only major complaint about Abraham, beyond an over-the-top emotionalism that creeps into his acting on occasion, is that he and Tresnjak have made the character’s motivation a bit too lucid. Shylock’s grudge against Antonio, for treating him like a dog in the Rialto and lowering the borrowing rate by lending money gratis, seems to account for everything — an interpretive tack that’s akin to taking Iago at his word that he’s torturing Othello for having been passed over for promotion.
The hallmark of Shakespeare’s authorship is his slippery ambiguity, one of the reasons we return to the plays again and again. This quality is narrowed to a degree (even Antonio’s homoerotic attachment to Bassanio is spelled out with a kiss). But Tresnjak, former artistic director of the Old Globe Shakespeare Festival, compensates with exceptionally vivid characterizations, which are delivered in brisk, bold strokes on John Lee Beatty’s industrial chic set.
Ted Schneider overcooks Gratiano’s party boy side, but how refreshing to encounter MacCluggage’s tart Portia, a romantic heroine who doesn’t always act heroically, as her no-nonsense maid Nerissa (Christen Simon Marabate) probably knows better than anyone. Even the minor characters are given a vibrant makeover: When Jacob Ming-Trent struts out like a rap star, he cheekily (and self-empoweringly) refashions the image of Shylock’s deserting servant, Launcelot Gobbo.
Tresnjak doesn’t overlook the many different forms of bigotry in the play. He shines a light on the characters’ ugly blind spots, but he doesn’t rewrite the text to appease contemporary sensibilities. This is one of the few times the magnificent poetry of the final act is given its due. It’s not easy to join the festivities in Belmont after Shylock’s courtroom degradation, but that’s where Shakespeare sends us, and this production knows how to be faithful even when taking the wildest liberties.
"The Merchant of Venice," The Broad Stage, 1310 11th Street, Santa Monica. Visit theater's website for schedule. Ends April 24.$47-$175. (310)434.3200 or www.theBroadStage.com Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes
Top: F. Murray Abraham, Christen Simon Marabate, Kate MacCluggage. Bottom: F. Murray Abraham and Jonathan Epstein. Credit: Amy Graves