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A CurtainUp Review
The Merchant of Venice
But aren't all plays products of their time? Othello deals with prickly and off-putting (though, sadly, not yet outdated) race issues, but is performed far more regularly than Merchant. Perhaps anti-Semitism is more uncomfortable than racism. While we tend to think of Shakespeare's oeuvre as all timeless classics, Shakespeare more than once dabbled in revisionist history. The historical King Richard III was not more murderous than other kings, and was not deformed. When Shakespeare made him part of his King plays, Queen Elizabeth I ruled England. She was a descendant of King Henry VII ho overthrew Richard and Shakespeare would have been expected to show that Richard was a monster.
In much the same way, Renaissance culture demanded that Shylock be a villain, and, as such, unable to exercise mercy, therefore leaving it to , the Christians to do so. The Jew in The Jew of Malta is a ravening monster, but the reason The Jew of Malta is rarely performed is because it's too melodramatic and heavy-handed (and per Elyse's review, made more so in this revival). But then, Marlowe was never known for his subtlety. By contrast, Merchant, despite its supposed condemnation of all things Jewish, is a play full of surprisingly complicated and sometimes contradictory emotions. Shylock is not a single-minded fiend intent on his "pound of flesh." He is a man who has been so relentlessly persecuted his whole life so that when his daughter runs away with a Christian something in him snaps, and he takes it out on the most convenient Christian target—Antonio. And in the end, for his trouble, he is forced to convert.
The Merchant of Venice was written around 1596 or 1597, after and Richard III, but before the later tragedies. Its basic plot outline was lifted from contemporary Italian story collections and the Italian setting and marriage plot are much like Shakespeare's earlier comedies. Shylock, like most Renaissance Jews, Shylock is forced to live in a Venetian ghetto, barred from all trades except money-lending. Christian law forbade lending money at interest, called usury, but Jews were not, and so many made a comfortable living lending money to Christians. Bassanio, a young man, desperate to court Portia needs money. His friend Antonio's fortune is tied up at sea and so they go to Shylock to borrow 3,000 ducats, to be paid back when Antonio's ships return to port. Shylock advances them the money at no interest, with the stipulation that if Antonio is unable to pay, Shylock has the right to cut away a pound of his flesh. Bassanio's courtship of Portia is complicated by her father's will which decrees that her suitors must choose between three caskets of gold, silver, and lead, with the one making the correct choice winning her hand. Predictably, Bassanio chooses the correct one, and he and Portia are wed. Meanwhile Shylock's daughter Jessica has eloped with a young Venetian Christian, Antonio's ships are lost at sea, and Shylock has him arrested and brought to trial to make good on the pound of flesh. When Shylock refuses the 6,000 ducats Portia has given Bassamio to save Antonio, Portia shows up in court disguised as a young doctor of law, and points out a loophole in the contract—Shylock is entitled to flesh, but cannot shed a drop of Christian blood without his own fortune being forfeit to the crown. Defeated, he gives up half his estate to Antonio, and is forced to convert.
TFNA's production of Merchant, skillfully directed by Darko Tresnjak, has been planted firmly in modern times. The set design by John Lee Beatty is stark and crisp. The black three-quarter thrust stage is furnished only with three spotlighted Apple Powerbooks and three accompanying flat-panel screens, looking very much like the lobby of a private equity firm. This is a crowd as familiar with Bluetooth and Treos as with iambic pentameter. But the production's real power is in Lindo Cho's costumes. Shylock enters with an espresso and the Financial Times. The other men wear investment banker-worthy power suits. Indeed, the men of this play are preening peacocks &mdash the more powerful the man, the more brilliant the flashes of color on his suit. Shylock, by intentional contrast, wears the plainest, simplest suit. The women, including Portia's servant, dress like publishing magnates. Her male servant is a Chelsea club-goer, sleek and darkly monochromatic. The other male servant, Gabbo, is a bike messenger. Interestingly, in the second act, the color scheme is reversed; the least powerful wear the flashiest colors.
F. Murray Abraham plays a finely nuanced Shylock, the perfect "villain" for such a polished production. That is to say, he's not really a villain at all. His Shylock strives so earnestly for his revenge in the form of the famous pound of flesh, that we pity him and share his anguish at his daughter's defection and his shame at his forced conversion; and yet we cannot help but note that his pride was his downfall, that he brought it on himself. Abraham is not the only standout. This is a fine ensemble cast. All give strong, memorable performances and some, most notably Arnie Burton as Balthazar, are downright funny.
So often, when Shakespeare is modernized the concept overshadows the play itself. Richard III (the movie) was set in Nazi Germany, The Tempest was set in colonial America, with Caliban an unfortunate Native American. But Tresnjak has wisely chosen to avoid a concept, and instead simply updates the play's surroundings. His sleekly modern staging complements the timelessness of Merchant, that is if anti-Semitism can be termed timeless. This is a very urban, very hip revival, perfectly suited to New York audiences.
For Elyse Sommer's review of TFNA's The Jew of Malta go here
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