Abraham and company deliver the goods

Mighty merchant
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  April 1, 2011

 merchant of venice
STRAINED MERCY Don’t look for a happy ending in this disquieting production of Shakespeare’s “problem comedy.

The Rialto intersects Wall Street in Theatre for a New Audience's steely, droll, and deeply disquieting The Merchant of Venice (presented by ArtsEmerson at the Cutler Majestic Theatre through April 10). Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham is the dignified, humiliated heart of Darko Tresnjak's 21st-century staging, in which the lottery for Portia's hand is conducted by Apple laptop and almost everyone is on a cell phone. First mounted in New York in 2007, paired there with Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (the title role also essayed by Abraham), the production is set against a gleaming glass-and-metal high-rise where callow young brokers have one eye on the stock-market ticker and the other on the mostly monetary gossip around a town where everything's a transaction. No ameliorator, Tresnjak shies neither from the anti-Semitism in the play nor from the cruelty to which Shylock's pain and maltreatment push him. Neither does the director buy into the play's happy ending, here a melancholy dance that sets you wondering whether the quality-of-mercy song might not next be sung in a divorce court.

One of the problems with Shakespeare's so-called problem comedy is the way in which it bounces back and forth between mercenary Venice, where Shylock is beseeched, spat upon, and robbed of his daughter and his ducats, and romantic Belmont, where Portia must endure the posthumous control of her well-meaning dad via the ritual of the caskets. Although more Champagne is swilled at Belmont, the two worlds, linked in this rendering by Blackberry and Internet, don't seem so far apart. Neither is the play's cruelty confined to Venice, where Shylock, in the midst of his grief, is taunted in the street and kicked in the pants. Kate MacCluggage's brainier Paris Hilton of a Portia can be pretty snarky about her suitors, and in one thoughtless allusion to the Prince of Morocco (who arrives with an entourage and a scimitar suitable for photo ops), she proves herself a bit of a racist. And lest the ethnic stereotyping be confined to Jews and African potentates, the production provides a Launcelot Gobbo (wittily played by Jacob Ming-Trent) hooked on hip-hop and reefer.

But it's up in the air in Tresnjak's production, awash as it is in moral and sexual ambiguity, whether Abraham's heartfelt but implacable Shylock or Tom Nelis's arrogant Antonio (a cross between As You Like It's Jaques and Tim Gunn) is more sinned against than sinning. Asked by Bassanio to raise money for his pricy journey to Belmont to win an heiress wife, Antonio condescends to borrow money from Shylock and then assents to the Jew's "merry sport" of making the collateral a pound of his goyish flesh. But when not exhibiting an adamant physical tenderness toward Bassanio, he radiates a contempt that carries into the courtroom. There, when approached by Shylock with his knife, he spits in the Jew's face — whereupon Abraham's Shylock spits right back, having by this time moved beyond heartbreak and impassioned complaint to the cool zealotry that demands his "bond."

1  |  2  |   next >
Related: Review: The Laramie Residency, Love and Robots in Death and the Powers: The Robots' Opera, Mabou Mines deconstructs Ibsen, plus The Civilians, More more >
  Topics: Theater , Theater, Cutler Majestic Theatre, reviews,  More more >
| More


Most Popular
ARTICLES BY CAROLYN CLAY
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   ARTSEMERSON'S METAMORPHOSIS  |  February 28, 2013
    Gisli Örn Garðarsson’s Gregor Samsa is the best-looking bug you will ever see — more likely to give you goosebumps than make your skin crawl.
  •   CLEARING THE AIR WITH STRONG LUNGS AT NEW REP  |  February 27, 2013
    Lungs may not take your breath away, but it's an intelligent juggernaut of a comedy about sex, trust, and just how many people ought to be allowed to blow carbon into Earth's moribund atmosphere.
  •   MORMONS, MURDERERS, AND MARINERS: 10 THEATER SENSATIONS COMING TO BOSTON STAGES THIS SPRING  |  February 28, 2013
    Mitt Romney did his Mormon mission in France. But there are no baguettes or croissants to dip into the lukewarm proselytizing of bumbling elders Price and Cunningham, two young men sent by the Church of Latter-day Saints to convert the unfaithful of a Ugandan backwater in The Book of Mormon .
  •   THE HUMAN STAIN: LIFE AND DEATH IN MIDDLETOWN  |  February 22, 2013
    The New York Times dubbed Will Eno a “Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation.”
  •   ZEITGEIST STAGE COMPANY'S LIFE OF RILEY  |  February 22, 2013
    Sir Alan Ayckbourn has written more than 70 plays, most of which turn on an intricate trick of chronology or geography.

 See all articles by: CAROLYN CLAY