By William Shakespeare
Directed by Darko Tresnjak
Produced by Theatre for a New Audience and Broadway in Chicago
At the Bank of America Theatre
If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces.
– Portia, I.ii
The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s more difficult comedies. The vitriolic anti-Semitism is hard to swallow, no matter how it is dealt with contextually; it is, as Taming of the Shrew, as Two Gentlemen of Verona, a very timely work. That said, it does not lack for genius. Shylock’s monologue telling Solanio and Salerio why he will pursue the surety he has been promised – a pound of Antonio’s flesh – has become one of the most recognized pieces of Shakespeare (“If you prick us, do we not bleed? . . . The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction”), and the play is rich in its relationships – Bassanio and Antonio, Shylock and Jessica (and ducats) – and deals with love and marriage in deep and characteristically Shakespearean ways.
Darko Tresnjak has decided to set this particular production in the present-day world of Wall Street, fratty MBAs and trendy technology. That’s fine, in principle: whether using the traditional setting of a Shakespeare play or not is irrelevant, so long as the new setting is for a reason, is used well, and enhances some aspect of the piece. Unfortunately, the modern-day setting was employed more as a gimmick than anything else, with Portia’s chests being MacBook Pros instead of metal, and people occasionally calling each other on cell phones. It did emphasize the greed of the Venetians, but their greed is hardly the greed of a Wall Street banker, who loves money purely for itself – indeed, that is more Shylock than the Venetians, who spend it instead of hoarding it on the pleasures of life till they are no longer rich. To be sure, laptops-as-chests is a novel idea, but the sound effects for each computer, and especially the videos, are so grating that they only emphasize the extent to which the gimmick doesn’t work: USB thumb drives as “keys” is just so uninteresting.
What’s more, the Venetian ex-frat boy MBAs were so universally unappealing and obnoxious that they were difficult to actually watch – let alone the fact that, as actors, most of them were middling at best. The only people that find frat boys and MBAs appealing are other frat boys and MBAs – and the deranged, fragile women who are attracted to them out of some sense of crazed, solipsistic duty. They were loud and obnoxious – totally in-character – but that made their anti-Semitic remarks superficial and easily dismissed. “It’s just those crazy bastards . . . and no one likes them anyway.” If they were less openly vitriolic, their taunts would have been far more insidious. In Antonio’s mouth, the upstanding older gentleman – a “confirmed bachelor,” they used to call them – the remarks regarding Shylock are more unsettling. He is, after all, so good to Bassanio, and so generally magnanimous to all his compatriots.
Antonio is an interesting character: like the other Shakespearean Antonio, in Twelfth Night, he is gay; and, in fact, in love with Bassanio, which is why he is so free with his money and, ultimately, his life where Bassanio is concerned. He is the merchant of Venice who sets this play in motion: Bassanio has spent all his money, and more, and asks Antonio for a loan, so he might woo a rich foreigner who can pay all his debts. It helps that she’s beautiful and intelligent, but her main appeal for Bassanio is her wealth. Antonio agrees to help the man he loves, although he is in a funk because Bassanio is seeking a wife. The production makes an almost-interesting decision here: for in the court scene, with Antonio’s life won, Bassanio kisses his benefactor. I say almost because although the text makes clear that Antonio’s love is one-sided, a director may choose, successfully, to make it mutual; this makes Bassanio’s need to marry in order to have his debts forgiven all the more tragic (and, indeed, something very similar can be done in Twelfth Night), and gives a dark tinge to an already dark comedy – as so many of Shakespeare’s comedies are (but, please, let us never call them tragicomedies – let us not defile them so!). However, whereas this could ultimately be pulled off, and is a worthy and intriguing idea, this production fails to succeed because the kiss comes out of nowhere. At no point earlier in the play do we see Bassanio dote on Antonio; never do we see him reluctant, in the least, regarding Portia’s advances – quite the opposite. We are never presented with the thought that Bassanio is anything but interested in Portia sexually. And so we are unconvinced, utterly, when he gives his older benefactor this sign of mutual affection. Which is a shame, because it is such a good idea, and it is executed so unquestionably poorly.
And as a side note, making Portia’s servant Balthazar gay as well degrades the strangeness, otherness, and solitude of Antonio, who is left, in the last scene of the play, alone on the island with the three pairs of lovers.
That said, the show is not without merit: Lucas Hall, who plays Bassanio, does admirably; F. Murray Abraham portrays a subtle Shylock; and Kate MacCluggage is excellent as Portia, rather stealing the show. (A few others are also solid; in fact, many have their moments. But there is a diffused quality, and a lack of discipline, that reigns in the cast. I will only point out Ted Schneider, who plays Gratiano, because he is so obviously talented – he was magnetic – but needs to learn how to harness it better . . . and needs to stop channeling Brent Spiner quite so much.) Merchant of Venice is also a comedy, and they have not lost sight of that, really going for the laughs in the piece, which is laudable. Moreover, this is still Shakespeare: his brilliance shines bright. The riddles for the chests are wonderfully clever, and his language is, as ever, beautiful. The device in the fifth act, where Portia finally subjugates Antonio’s love for Bassanio to her own, making clear that marriage comes first, is masterful.
The central problem with this production is that, by trying to sex up the show and appeal to the middle, they end up appealing to no one. Heavy-duty theatre-goers will find it unremarkable, and casual observers will be lost because of the lack of enunciation as well as the bluster and overall mediocrity of the ensemble. Beyond that, the climax in the court scene is muddled, which is not helped by the staging of the judge, who is behind the audience: we are robbed of his facial expressions.
And the other Jew, whom Shylock talks with on the phone regarding his daughter’s elopement and Antonio’s falling fortunes, is so bland he may have actually been a wooden post dressed in a bekishe. Or perhaps Mitt Romney.
Abraham’s performance is good; he presents a compelling and complex Shylock. Is it good enough that his name should come before the title of Shakespeare’s play on the marquee? No. It was not that good. Honestly, one expects a bit better; indeed, Kate MacCluggage rather upstaged him, although he delivered in crucial places: the monologue mentioned at the top of the piece was excellent, as well as the dialogue with Tubal, the other Jew. It was simply not the mind-altering performance one would hope for.
This is a show that is deeply flawed, but with good ideas and some solid actors. If they rehashed it, if they whipped the ensemble into shape, lost the tiresome gimmicks, and decided what the hell they were doing with Bassanio, it could be a remarkably good piece. As it is, it is a fine yet ordinary production with some very good moments awash in a sea of mediocrity.
Reviewed on 3.17.11
For full show information, visit it’s page at Theatre in Chicago.