As I mentioned in my previous post, Jonesy and I went to see a production of The Merchant of Venice this past weekend: Theatre for a New Audience is doing both Merchant and The Jew of Malta in rotating repertory with the same cast (but different directors), starring F. Murray Abraham as both Shylock and Barabas. Ever since I learned of this last summer I've been obsessed with the idea of seeing the paired productions, and, luckily for me, Merchant entered previews just before I left New York. (Unluckily, though, Malta doesn't start its previews until next week. I may have to go ahead and buy tickets and fly in some weekend just for the show.)
Merchant is directed by Darko Tresnjak, whose eccentric production of Two Noble Kinsmen Jonesy and I had seen at the Public a few years ago. I don't really know 2NK (or, as I insisted on calling it--this was at the same time that the sequel to The Fast and the Furious was out in movie theatres--2 Noble, 2 Furious, 2 Kinsmen), so that production didn't affect my perception of the play one way or the other. But last winter George Washington Boyfriend and I saw Tresnjak's staging of All's Well That Ends Well, also produced by TFANA, and that just blew us both away. As I blogged at the time, I had never considered All's Well psychologically believable, or even really all that interesting except in academic terms, but Tresnjak's production was gorgeous, compelling, and entirely believable; I left the theatre feeling that I had learned and experienced something new--and that's my standard for a truly good work of art in any medium.
His Merchant is almost as good. Staged in contemporary dress and with a minimalist set that suggests a sleek Financial District office tower (textured glass panels lit by blue-green lights, with a glassed-in corridor to the rear permitting entrances from the wings), the only props for most of the play are three chest-high tables with three iBooks open away from the audience. The Venetians, then, are bankers and bond traders, forever punching each other on the shoulder and fiddling with their Blackberries. Their fratty glad-handing and casual viciousness might owe just a wee bit too much to David Mamet, but in general it struck me as a fresh and very smart reimagining of the play's world. As Jonesy observed, their ethos is all about bros before hos.
The production itself is as in love with high-tech props as the Venetians are--Portia's servant Balthazar, played as an officious gay man in expensive sneakers, is always stalking around talking into a headset, and one of Portia's suitors, a Mohawk-less Mr. T wannabe, arrives after having apparently parachuted out of a helicoper--but to my mind all of them work, and some of them illuminate the text in really nice ways. Shylock's conversation with Tubal in 3.1 is conducted via cell phone, and Tubal keeps dropping off; each time he does, Shylock works himself up into more and more of a state imagining what might follow. (The use of the iBooks in place of the caskets, however, didn't do anything for me.)
But the production's real strengths are in its inspired interpretations of some of the play's most difficult scenes. When I teach Merchant, we always spend a lot of class time trying to figure out what Shylock's intentions might be when he first proposes the "merry bond"--and how Antonio interprets or understands that offer. But I don't think I've ever encountered this particular reading: in Tresnjak's production, Shylock has told Antonio that he'll offer him the loan at no interest--and isn't that kind of him? He and Antonio shake hands as Shylock talks of going with him to the notary, but as they're shaking, Shylock tightens his grip so Antonio can't pull free. He looks him in the eyes, smiles ever so slightly, and then announces the real terms of the bond.
Antonio jerks his hand out of Shylock's, shoves him back, and seems about to punch him--but recovers himself enough just to spit back, "Content, in faith. I'll seal to such a bond,/And say there is much kindness in the Jew." In other words, the bond is all about showing who has the bigger dick.
I also liked the interpretation of the courtroom scene. In this production, Portia is winging it the whole time, very quickly aware that she's in over her head. Even when she tells Shylock that he can't take any blood with that pound of flesh--or that if he kills Antonio, he'll be guilty of murdering a citizen--she doesn't seem convinced that she's got Shylock cornered. . . and even when Shylock realizes that he is cornered, legally, he's still got the knife in his hand and up until practically the last moment seems prepared to kill Antonio out of sheer spite.
Once Portia realizes that she's won, she's briefly exultant--but she's not in control for very long; Antonio, the Duke, and the jeering spectators take over. Antonio insists that Shylock convert, and, his hands newly freed, tears off Shylock's yarmulke. As the scene ends, Portia looks sick and stunned, alone over on one corner of the stage as the men are all heartily congratulating each other. Unnoticed, she picks up the yarmulke, fingers it for a moment--and, when interrupted, hastily sticks it in her pocket. At the very end of the play, when Portia removes the letter for Antonio, the yarmulke falls out, and this time only Jessica sees it.
There's more to say--among other things, about how well the stiff, impeccably-suited Antonio shows the vicious and soul-shriveling effects of the closet (appropriate, in this the year of Mark Foley and Ted Haggard), and about the awesomeness of the exchange between Jessica and Lorenzo at the opening of 5.1--but I'll end by simply saying that anyone in or near New York, and especially anyone who teaches Shakespeare, should make seeing this production a priority.
(Because really: even if it does nothing else, the play will forever erase from your mind the image of Al Pacino as Shylock--and isn't that alone worth the ticket price?)