Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

By Joe Straw

In the middle of The Merchant of Venice there is an intimate scene with two young lovers sharing a garden space, slightly clothed.   Stolen away from family and religion (a Christian and a Jew) they seek an intimacy.  But in the background of their lives a crime has been committed, thousand of ducats stolen. It is an unspeakably horrific crime if one cares about money.  But this moment is about making love and for the time being they don’t think about the consequences, they only love for today, repercussions are for tomorrow. 

F. Murray Abraham as Shylock stars in a very “interesting” production of The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare at the beautiful Broad Stage Theatre in Santa Monica.  Presented by the Theatre for A New Audience and directed by Darko Tresnjak.  This rendition takes us to a present day.

It was “interesting”.   (Oh, oh, isn’t “interesting” a charming code word.)  Well not necessarily.  Although, there were good things to celebrate there were also, um, not so good things and one will get to all of that later. 

Lost in this production was the city in Italy called Venice.  It was nowhere to be found.  Not a speck.  Not a touch. Well, maybe the masks but you couldn’t really see them because they were in shadow.  And John Lee Beatty, the Scenic Designer places us to a place that is very cold and uninviting, possibly a place that looks like a trading floor of a stock exchange somewhere in, not Venice, Italy.

Also, not much scenery in a place noted for finding love, sharing love, and making love.  Be that as it may what we’ve got here is a place where things, commodities, and passions are bought and sold, including our love interests. 

A dry martini of unrequited impassionate love will be served in this cold and steely bar on the outskirts of this financial barren wasteland.

This production of The Merchant of Venice was originally produced by Theatre for a New Audience at The Duke on 42nd Street from January 7 through March 11, 2007 and subsequently played at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works Festival from March 22, through the 31, 2007.

Antonio (Jonathan Epstein) is sad of heart.  Despite his wealth and merchant experience nothing is able to cheer him up including Gratiano (Ted Schneider) his inebriated fool, acquaintance, and someone who is not likely to give the wisest of advice.

As the play goes, Bassanio (Graham Hamilton) has gotten himself into a lot of trouble with his finances.  He would like to woo the beautiful Portia (Kate MacCluggage), an heiress of Belmont but doesn’t have the resources (money) to make that happen.  He enlists his “unmarried” friend Antonio, the merchant of Venice, to help him once again.  Bassanio has a belief that Antonio will help him no matter the circumstances simply because Antonio loves him.  

“My purse, my person, my extremest means,
Lie all unlock’d to your occasions”. - Antonio

But Antonio is short of accessible funds.  He has ships bringing in merchandise from all over the world and things are a little tight.  But what he has to offer is his bond and that means a lot to the lenders in Venice.  Antonio tells Bassanio to make the deal and he will back the loan.

Meanwhile Portia (Kate MacCluggage) and her waiting woman Nerissa (Christen Simon Marabate) are making deals to benefit themselves.  Not willing to wait for love, they speak of marrying off Portia to the most suitable husband.  But the suitors must participate in a game if they are to have Portia’s hand and wealth.  They must pick the right chest of gold, silver or lead if they are to receive the pleasures of their desires.  If the suitors don’t pick the right chest, they are treated like lepers and ushered out the door with little regard.

Later, Bassanio finds and enlists Shylock to help him finance his ventures.  He needs three thousand ducats for three months.

“For the which, as I told you, Antonio shall be bound.” - Bassanio

But there is sinister undercurrent in these canals.  Antonio doesn’t like Jews, and in particular, Shylock. And for Shylock the feeling is mutual.

“I hate him for he is a Christian,
But more for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.”  - Shylock

Meanwhile the merchant and the Jew speak of serious negotiations. 

“Fair Sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last;
You spurn’d me such a day; another time y
You call’s me dog; and for these courtesies
I’ll lend you thus much money”? – Shylock

“I am like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.
If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not”  - Antonio

Oh, but Shylock has revenge on his mind and it is an evil born from the core of his being. And he likes a little game with his loan.

“If you repay me not on such a day,
In such a place, such sum or sums as are
Express’d in the condition, let the forfeit
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken
In what part of your body pleaseth me.” - Shylock


Can Shylock be serious about these negotiations?  Nevertheless, one has to ask as to who of these two creatures are the worst of the lot: The one who makes the ridiculous deal, or the one who will happily cut off a pound of flesh if the bond is not paid?  They shake hands and the deal is made.

In this particular abbreviated version of Merchant Lancelot Gobbo (Jacob Ming-Trent) doesn’t have a father, Old Gobbo, but leaves the employment of Shylock because he believes Shylock is the devil.

“…for I am a Jew, if I serve the Jew any longer.” - Launcelot

And in this world of heated transactions we find young love in the city of Venice Jessica (Melissa Miller) daughter to Shylock and Lorenzo (Vince Nappo).  Not happy with the way things are going at home Jessica runs off with Lorenzo while Shylock is off feasting and bad mouthing Christians.

Meanwhile Portia invites the Prince of Morocco (Ralph Nash Thompson) in her home to try his fate at winning her hand.  He fails and off he sails into the night.

(In this abbreviated production of Merchant gone is Scene VIII between Salarino and Salanio.  It explains the happenings of Shylock after his daughter has left him with his money and jewels and how the townsfolk ridicule Shylock when he and the Duke are out searching for his daughter and his money.  This scene also explains the homoerotic relationship between Antonio and Bassino.)

Meanwhile Portia is at it again, this time with the Prince of Arragon (Christopher Randolph). Arragon makes a wrong choice and is summarily escorted out the door.  And as Arragon leaves, Bassanio is waiting in the wings. 

Portia grows weary of all this falderal.

No more, I pray thee:  I am half afeard
Thou wilt say anon he is some kin to thee.    Portia

F. Murray Abraham gives an incredible performance.  Not a wasted moment or an unnecessary movement on stage.  Calling him a “kinder and gentler” Shylock does not take away from a wonderful performance.  He is an actor that pays attention to the smallest of details, the knife on the sole of the shoe, and the way he prays are beautiful moments. Still, there is room to work the overbearing father and taskmaster to a greater degree so the other characters actions have a stronger meaning.

Andrew Dahl as Balthasar gives in so many ways to count.  The performance is charming and his moments on stage give new meaning to the word, actor.  His performance was delightful all around.

Jonathan Epstein is a very capable Antonio.  He had a rough and business like exterior but when it came to the emotions of the heart one is lost in understanding his objective.  With his objective not being clear he loses the sight of his wanting Bassanio, or wanting his happiness.  Either way Antonio seems to give in to Bassanino’s pleasure, or better yet he is left to blow to the winds of change, like the ships he loses at sea.  Despite all of his losses surely there’s more to this man than meets the eye, or dialogue for that matter.

Graham Hamilton, as Bassanio, was also very capable.  Still, there is more needed here in his relationship with Portia and with Antonio.  His moments on stage with Portia seem gratuitous.  There is not a moment when he falls completely in love with her.   He seems to be there for the money. Gone is the reaction of the choice he must make to have either Portia or Antonio and the maddening loss he must feel when he gives up the ring.  Still, these are choices one may not entirely agree with but in the context of this version of Merchant his performance was nicely done.

Kate MacCluggage, as Portia, is a stunning creature.  Certainly, she is able to protrude strength as well as wisdom in her performance.  She is a modern day woman who pushes a lot of buttons to get things done.  Her objective was to get Bassanio to make the right choice and through legal maneuverings save his friend from certain death.  She did all this in words but gave little in the way of actions on this night.  She is clear on her objective. But, as the character, her actions were not seamless.  The actions are lacking continuity and not formed to carry the character to her final place.

Christen Simon Marabate, as Nerissa, Portia’s waiting-woman, was confusing.  A modern day personal assistant but still an underling of sorts.  It was a relationship that was not well defined and gets little traction.  Also, her relationship with Gratiano was not developed and one could not find the reasons, her actions, why she would want to marry this inebriated fool.

Melissa Miller, as Jessica, was wonderful.  There is so much depth to her performance one can watch her all day.  Still, her relationship to her father, Shylock, was not developed enough to give one a reason why she was desperate to leave.  The dialogue suggests that he was overbearing, locks her up, etc., but Shylock didn’t seem that bad.  Yet her relationship with Lorenzo seemed spot on.

Jacob Ming-Trent, as Launcelot comes out as a “hip hop artist” in a very nice opening, strong voice and charming in a number of ways.  Still this was on opening that leads him nowhere.  One questions his relationship with his employer Shylock, and the unremarkable new relationship he has with his new employer.  His objective, slightly confusing, has him floundering on stage with nowhere to go.

Vince Nappo as Lorenzo did a fine job of rescuing Jessica from her ruthless father.  The scene with little clothing was very good but one questions his objective and one also questions the emotions of his back-story.  It is a small quibble; Nappo did a very fine job.

Christopher Randolph as the Prince ofArragon was absolutely fantastic.  He is an outrageous Prince with a lisp spewing copious amounts of spit on every character within an imaginable range.   He was so pompous and so princely. Defeated in the end, his wet lips are forced to find other conquests and sad to say those conquests will probably be in another lifetime.  Nevertheless a very fine performance.  Randolph played the Duke “off stage” which was a tragedy in this production of Merchant.  This was the body of authority in the trial scene and an important figure that was left off stage. 

Ted Schneider as Gratiano is very funny as the inebriated friend to Brassanio.  He is, in this production, the fool who spends too much time at the bar and gives the unwisest of advice.  As the character it leads to lightheartedness and little else.  And yet during the course of the play he falls in love and weds Nerrisa.  One doesn’t see this or see it coming. 

Raphael Nash Thompson was quite good as the Prince of Morocco.  This tall a majestic figure withered like a dry desert flower after a night of no rain when he chose the wrong computer.

Matthew Schneck had his moments as Salerio, as well did Grant Goodman as Solanio and Catherine Gowl was the understudy. 

Darko Tresnjack is a visionary and he has a particular vision for this Merchant, cold and steely. Still, there were a lot of remarkable moments in his version.  But, there was not a lot of room for Venice and love.  Shylock was not an emotionally overbearing father. Antonio didn’t seem to care for anyone, much less Bassanio.  Portia was hardly affected when the ring comes back to her.  Bassanio didn’t seem conflicted for his final lack of judgment.

For Tresnjack this all seemed to be the vision of a banking world where no one cares or asks questions. The deal is done, let’s move on, no crying, no emotion. What are we to make of this when we are searching for the emotional highs and lows of love and the human condition in theatre?

Do bankers cry?  Well, apparently, not too much.  They laugh when they take their pound of flesh and they do it everyday and all day.  One believes this is what Tresnjack is trying to say.  This production is touring all across the United States.  Do drop in and see it. 

One note about this particular set from John Lee Beatty.  The problem with working with technology is that it is changing rapidly.  One might have looked at the set as “high tech” in 2007 when this show was first produced is now looking like the old and decrepit laptop that is years old and sits in the corner of your room. Even the images projected on screen served it purpose then and must be regenerated to give us a modern day feel.

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