New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

New York City Theater

"The Merchant of Venice"
Pace University

Shylock, Shakespeare’s wily, vengeful, mistreated Venetian, has really taken over Manhattan. First, there was Al Pacino’s impassioned version at Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park. Then, Pacino and company moved to Broadway, to continued acclaim.

And now, yet another “The Merchant of Venice. F. Murray Abraham offers a different interpretation of the Jewish banker (usurer, as the Christian Venetians would have it), in a production directed by the controversial Darko Tresnjak, now being shown at Pace University’s downtown arts center.

Tresnjak has chosen to set the play in today’s world, with as many scenes at the stock exchange as at Portia’s home. Laptops, cell phones and I-Pods abound. It is a slicked-down sterile set, with practically no props. In fact, the only props are three tables on which sit the laptops, with a large screen (TV? Computer monitor?) over each table. When Portia’s suitors must choose between three caskets (laptops, in this case) to gain her hand, the results are flashed on large overhead screens.

Tresnjak’s idea, we suspect, is to point out the similarities between
Shakespeare’s imagined Venice and our own modern times—amoral, sterile, and money mad, as he sees it. Greed, not sex, dominates the scene. Tresnjak is not far from the mark—at least in terms of the enigmatic play. It can hardly be called a comedy—or a romantic comedy. Nor is it a tragedy, since no one dies at the end. It is, if anything, a wry, satiric take on a particular society.

No wonder there have been so many interpretations of Shylock over the years. Is Shakespeare being sympathetic to the treatment of Jews? Did he really know anything about Jews (who were practically non-existent in Elizabethan England)? Or was he merely writing a play that would sell tickets, having culled his sources from many earlier pieces.

“The Merchant of Venice” is actually two stories in one—a love affair and a business deal. (But the love affair is also a business deal.) Bassanio, a penniless gentleman, asks his friend Antonio (the merchant of Venice) for funds, so that he can court the beautiful heiress Portia. Antonio agrees, and, with his many cargoes at sea as collateral, Antonio asks Shylock for a loan of 3000 ducats. Shylock agrees, but asks for “as a whim” his “pound of flesh” should Antonio renege. Meanwhile, Portia is entertaining other suitors. According to her father’s will, a suitor must choose between three caskets, one of which contains Portia’s portrait. Ultimately Bassanio appears, chooses the right casket, and wins Portia (and her estate). At the same time, all Antonio’s ships are sunk at sea, and he cannot repay the loan. But Portia goes to Venice (disguised as a young male clerk) and wins the case against Shylock, turning his suit upsidedown. Shylock gets away with his life, but little else, forced to give up his religion and his worldly goods.

In our supposedly tolerant era, the emphasis has been to humanize Shylock, evoking audience sympathy for his plight. And certainly Al Pacino did that, with his human, emotional portrayal. But F. Murray Abraham is a different Shylock. Mostly his Shylock is a confident businessman, shrewdly assessing his clients—and managing to survive in the anti-Semitic world in which he lives. In fact, all the way through, Abraham maintains a detachment, somewhat tinged with cynicism. It is only at the play’s very end, that he shambles away, a broken, destroyed Jew, does he reflect emotion. Nor do other cast members enrich the production, with two remarkable exceptions. Jacob Ming-Trent, who plays Shylock’s servant Launcelot Gobbo, has one marvelously comic monologue, milking the play for its moment of comedy. And Melissa Miller gives a thoughtful, moving interpretation of Jessica, Shylock’s daughter.

But, on the whole, it is difficult for a reviewer to be moved by the Abraham performance—and by the production in general. It is too sterile, too detached. And despite John Lee Beatty’s clever minimal set, Tresnjak’s well-paced direction, and Shakespeare’s memorable lines, this production leaves the reviewer as detached as the play itself.

--Irene Backalenick
Mar. 7, 2011

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