note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
There’s a new dimension and look to William Shakespeare’s play about anti-Semitism, “The Merchant of Venice,” that has audiences buzzing after they’ve left the Cutler Majestic Theatre.
Under the deft direction of Darko Tresnjak, Theatre for a New Audience has modernized the play, adding relevance and timelessness to it. Three suspended monitors bleep and project stock market trading figures, or animated, multimedia messages supposedly contained within lead, gold and silver chests that determine whom lovely heiress Portia will marry, based on suitors’ correct choice. In place of the small caskets, though, are three Apple laptops.
Costume designer Linda Cho dresses all males in suits and ties, with Portia’s penniless suitor, Bassanio (Lucas Hall) and his buddies carrying cellphones. Lovely Portia (Kate MacCluggage) and her maid, Nerissa, (Christen Simon-Marabate) wear contemporary dresses. However, Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, (Melissa Miller) initially wears conservatively modest attire of contemporary orthodox Jewish women.
To break the heavy tension in “Merchant,” Shylock’s fun-loving servant, Launcelot Gobbo (Jacob Ming-Trent), looks, acts, and sounds like a rapper, with his hip-hop movements, facial expressions, gestures, casual clothes and backpack. Portia’s gay servant, Balthasar, (Andrew Dahl) also adds laughter.
Shakespeare’s language is also updated, without sacrificing the beauty of the Bard’s words. People who usually avoid Shakespeare’s plays enjoyed this version, with its typical inter-woven plot, sub-plots, intrigue, mistaken identity and masquerading characters
. And Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham as Shylock, the stereotypical, despised moneylending Jew, is magnificent. He balances Shylock’s complex personality, showing his humiliation from Christian’s beastly treatment and his searing pain from Jessica’s betrayal, running off with Christian Lorenzo, stealing from him, and her conversion, leaving him broken, embittered.
Murray doesn’t just intone Shylock’s famous speech. He evokes a deeply wounded soul that touches every heart, regardless of race or religion. He doesn’t shout it. He doesn’t expound, shake his fist, with fury. Softly, Shylock cries, “......If you prick us, do we not bleed?.....” Merchant Antonio, the very man who, with his friends, publicly taunted Shylock, spat at him, kicked him, demeaned him, called him a filthy Jew and the devil incarnate, owe him lots of money. In court, Shylock demands payment, but, more importantly, a pound of Antonio’s (Tom Nelis) flesh from near his heart, that will surely kill him.
Is Shylock that despicable, or is he irreparably wounded from years of Christian maltreatment and Jessica’s marrying a Christian and converting to Christianity? Doubled over, Shylock’s cries touch all souls, especially those who have faced racism firsthand.
This production of “The Merchant of Venice” is an exquisite exploration into a timeless situation that not only affects Jews, but all humanity. The quality of mercy still isn’t strained - it’s lacking.
The only problem at the Cutler Majestic is many people complained about difficulty hearing the actors, regardless of where they were seated. We hope sound designer Jane Shaw can mitigate the problem easily. This production is magnificent and mustn’t be missed.
BOX INFO: Two-act production by William Shakespeare, starring F. Murray Abraham, appearing through April 10 in the Cutler Majestic Theatre,219 Tremont St., Boston. Performances are Tuesday-Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday,Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m.; matinees Saturday, Sunday, at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $25; also, $49,$79,$99. Visit ArtsEmerson.org, the Box Office at Cutler Majestic or the Paramount, 559 Washington St., Boston, or call 617-824-8000.