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A CurtainUp Review
The Jew of Malta
By Elyse Sommer
With my calendar over-booked I decided to split reviewing duties. While neither of these plays is on the hit parade of much produced Elizabethan dramas, the events of the Nazi era made them even more controversial and less likely to have frequent productions. Consequently, this repertory staging is something of a not to be missed event for serious theater goers. The Merchant has shown up often enough for me to see it three times, whereas my first-hand acquaintance with Malta was on the page rather than on stage — so that's the half of this repertory run I took on.
To sum up the plot to fit a peanut shell: The Christian ruled island of Malta is claimed by the Turks and the Governor, his purse too small to meet the Turk's demands for tribute, demands that Malta's richest Jew cede their wealth to the cause and furthermore turns his mansion into a nunnery. From that moment on Barabas is bent on revenge. He makes his daughter pose as a nun to steal back his hidden fortune, causes the man she loves (the Governor's son) to be killed in a duel with another suitor. Learning of her father's duplicity, the daughter rejoins the convent where her father sends his slave, Ithamore, with a poisoned gift. The plot thickens and eventually Barabas is executed, cursing mankind with his last breath.
Even a terrific production (a friend told me that the revival at the Almeida in London a while back fell into that category) couldn't make this improbable tale of villainy something with great appeal to modern audiences. Watching Barabas — first as a crafty outsider surviving in a Christian ruled world (Malta in 1592), then as a super vengeful villain not above killing his own daughter and finally getting his just and grisly desserts — lends support to claims that Marlowe did not write the second half of the play. Seeing the play also diminishes accusations that The Merchant of Venice is just a copy-cat Jew of Malta. Shakespeare didn't just lift Marlowe's plot but created a vastly superior drama. Though it has its own farcical and pretty silly guess-the-casket subplot, it has far richer and more dimensional characters.
Unfortunately, David Herskovits has chosen to play up the cartoonish aspects of Malta in a way that makes you yearn for the day of the understated director — the kind interested in bringing out the best in the actors, keeping the plot clear and his own contribution in the background. This director is very much of the heavy footprint making directing school.
Fine actor that he is, F. Murray Abraham nevertheless manages to inhabit the difficult role of the title character. He delivers the opening monologue in the secret chamber where he's stashed away all his gold with impressive ease. He remains human (even if not even a smidgen sympathetic) through the murderous scheming prompted by the Governor's robbing him of his fortune and home. In short, he rises (well, mostly) above the director's over-emphasis on the buffoonery. The rest of the cast works hard but doesn't fare quite as well.
While Darko Tresnjak has moved the Venice and Belmont of Merchant to the near future, the events in Malta remain firmly planted in 1592, a time when audiences relished Marlowe's broad comic melodrama, Mr. Herskovits has aimed for relevance within the period setting but with all too often awkward or downright silly gimmickry. For example, in the scene when the Governor summons the Jews to tell them that it is they who must ante up the money demanded by the Turks in exchange from not taking over the island, Barabas's fellow Jews enter singing the "Hava Nagila." While this is indeed an ancient folk melody its use here seems incongruous, a cheap joke.
Then there's the death of daughter Abigail (Nicole Lowrance) who, after rejoining the nunnery in disgust with her father's manipulations that killed off both her suitors, returns to the nunnery where her father has her poisoned along with the rest of the nuns. As if this weren't ludicrous enough, the director hammers away at Marlowe's indictment of the Church by showing a priest having sex with the still warm body. Continuing along this distasteful track, the scene in which IIthamore (Arnie Burton), the erstwhile slave to Barabas, has fallen prey to to the charms of the courtesan Bellamira (Kate Forbes) it is Pilia-Borza, her pimp, who takes over by masturbating him. Other attempts at modernity and anything goes are provided by having the backstage assistants in their every day clothes delivering messages and props. I could go on, but you get the idea. This is a play that needs a director less compelled to put his own trendy stamp on the play and the players. Fortunately, as you'll see from Jenny Sandman's review (see link below) Mr. Tresjnak has manged to make Merchant work a lot better.
The Duke Theater has been reconfigured with an Elizabethan style thrust stage and the audience seated on three sides, with the last center row of seats uncomfortably wedged into an upper gallery. John Lee Beatty's set is flexible enough to accommodate the alternating plays. David Zinn's color coded costumes (black for the Jews, black and white for the Malta rulers, fiery red for the Turks) are quite handsome.
To address the inevitable question about the anti-Semitic characterization of Barabas. For sure, he's a despicable character but the Christians, Turks and Muslims don't come off any better. All these factions are enough to turn anyone into a misanthrope.
The overdone farcical elements notwithstanding, there's some lovely language here. The plot may be even more absurd and grotesque in this revival than the original, but the best of the language, especially when spoken by Abraham, endures.
To read Jenny Sandman's review of TFNA's The Merchant of Venice go here
For CurtainUp's reviews of other Merchant of Venice productions, see our Shakespeare Page .
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide