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The Merchant of Venice

A Merchant’s Take On the Too-Near Future

Theatre for a New Audience, Pace University Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts, New York City
Saturday, March 5, 2011, F –17&19 (left orchestra)
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

F. Murray Abraham as Shylock
F. Murray Abraham as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, displaying total calm as he pursued his case, giving careful consideration as he proceeded, maintaining studied justice in his motives. Only when all hope was lost did his veneer of control crack. Photo by Gerry Goodstein, Theatre for a New Audience.

Seeing two Merchants within two weeks of each other with two Oscar-winning actors playing Shylock means comparison is inevitable. “Comparison” is not the same as “ranking”: who was the better Shylock, Al Pacino or F. Murray Abraham? I’m not going there. Comparison, though, is good. It illustrates the breadth and depth of this and any Shakespeare play and how directors’ and actors’ choices alter not only interpretation and relevance of a role but also theatrical effectiveness.

Let’s start with the settings. Ironically, the Public Theatre Merchant, first mounted in 2010, took a post–Lehman Bros. reading while being set in circa 1900 Venice, whereas this Merchant, directed by Darko Tresnjak, was first mounted in 2007—pre–Wall Street meltdown—but set “in the near future” and definitely Wall Street in dress and appearance. Bluetooths and PDAs were integral to the action, and three Apple laptops with corresponding video screens above served as merchants’ tools as well as Portia’s chests.

Whereas Public Theatre shifted the villainy clearly to Antonio, this production made all the Christians in general the bad guys. Especially nasty were Salerio and Solanio (Matthew Schneck and Grant Goodman, respectively) who could ridicule Shylock even as they carried out floor trading in the stock exchange. They even got physically rough with Shylock leading into the “hath not a Jew” speech. Unfortunately, this violence and the continuing threat of a beating sapped the speech of its profundity as Abraham delivered more of a defensive plea than a manifesto of humanistic logic or, in Pacino’s riveting rendering, a defiant statement of intent. Antonio (Tom Nelis), meanwhile, was merely a self-centered, frustrated gay man. That he and Bassanio (Lucas Hall) had once had a sexual relationship was strongly asserted when the two shared a long, passionate kiss during the trial scene, an act that totally unnerved Portia who then saw Antonio as not just a heart rival for her husband but a sexual rival, too.

The Belmont of this production was a much livelier place than that of Public Theatre. Kate MacCluggage’s Portia was young and giddy in love yet wise and strong in management of her estate. Her maturity came to dominate the play’s second half, and while she reconnected with Bassanio at the end, it was clear she’d reassumed the control of her dominion that she had so willingly ceded to him in the chest scene. We also sensed that Bassanio felt awfully lucky just getting back in Portia’s good graces. Portia’s shift to maturity—but still maintaining a loving spirit—helped this production maintain the balance of Shakespeare’s overall comic intent with the post-Holocaust realities of staging Merchant as the tragedy of Shylock.

The Nerissa of this production was played by Christen Simon Marabate, a woman of color as was the Nerissa in Public’s production; however, this production did not cut Portia’s racist comments about the Prince of Morocco, and Nerissa only shrugged in response (theirs was more of a respectful employer/employee relationship than that of close friends). Meanwhile, Andrew Dahl turned the insignificant part of Balthasar into a conspicuous role as Belmont’s manager and IT specialist and a gay man on the prowl. Jacob Ming-Trent played Launcelot Gobbo as a stoner layabout, and his pot-addled version of the fiend-versus-conscience soliloquy was Richard Pryor funny. On the other hand, his repartee with Melissa Miller’s Jessica about her damnation was done in all seriousness rather than in jest, and this reading created a division between the characters that was unnecessarily uncomfortable.

And so we come back to Shylock. Public Theatre didn’t merely present Shylock, it presented Pacino as Shylock. While it was great theater—and great Shakespeare—it was all about the actor’s performance, complete with a big exit via the non-Shakespearian baptism scene. Abraham’s Shylock had nothing to do with the actor; it was all about the ensemble. He was low-key and mostly serious, his wry humor slipping out on occasion. As mentioned, this resulted in a weak “hath not a Jew” speech, and his conversation with Tubal (via cell phone) about the whereabouts of Jessica and the fate of Antonio’s ships concentrated on Shylock’s sadness rather than any threat to Antonio or a parody of Jewishness. Where Abraham’s approach payed off most effectively was in the trial, a true ensemble scene, equal parts Shylock, Portia, Antonio, Bassanio, Gratiano, and the Duke. Shylock displayed total calm as he pursued his case, giving careful consideration as he proceeded, maintaining studied justice in his motives. Only when all hope was lost did his veneer of control crack, and he rushed at Antonio determined to take his pound of flesh anyway. He paused, then melted into submission. Where Pacino was defiant, Abraham’s Shylock was defeated, which proved more moving, more tragic. As he left the stage, Abraham staggered, wracked with the stomach-bleeding pain of despair, and let out a wail of unstoppable tears. It was a cry that shook Portia (and the audience) to the core.

It turned out to be a much more effective exit for Shylock than Pacino’s stagey departure, and with more ramifications upon the play’s conclusion. As she recovered from Shylock’s cry, Portia picked up the skullcap that had been yanked off Shylock's head. She pocketed it. In the fifth act when she removed Bassanio’s ring from her pocket, she inadvertently pulled out the skullcap, which fell to the floor. Jessica picked it up as her Christian husband, Lorenzo, reveled in their newfound wealth, courtesy of the sentence befallen on Shylock. Jessica, skullcap in hand, realized that her father had been stripped of much more than his wealth; he’d been stripped of his very essence. She re-joined Lorenzo, but she did so a much wiser woman than she had been.

In maintaining the play’s comic/tragic balance, Tresnjak managed a worthwhile fifth act, one in which the disputes among the couples were real and charged with foreboding but the jokes nevertheless delivered as humor. Gratiano laughed upon speaking the play’s last lines, though there was much poignancy beneath the joke: “While I live, I’ll fear no other thing so sore as keeping safe Nerissa’s ring.” The three couples reconciled, snuggling and sipping champagne at three lounge tables while Antonio looked on in isolation.

The lovers thus turned their backs on Venice’s turmoil and embraced Belmont’s utopia, and it’s the three wives who achieved psychological dominance. Even though we couldn’t get Shylock’s cry out of our minds, this was a happy ending, for a future controlled by Portia, Nerissa, and Jessica was bound to be much better than the near future run by Antonio, Solanio, and Salerio.

Eric Minton
March 7, 2011

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