Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Theatre for a New Audience's Merchant of Venice

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?)



Besides the pacing and blocking of the "merry deed," I like what you've reported about Portia's character here in relation to the other characters on stage.

For one thing, it's a way of making sense of the apparent contradiction between Portia's self-presentation as "unschooled, unlessoned" and the pivotal role she plays in pronouncing sentences (as I think you know I've written on before). Also, too often the courtroom is presented as "Portia's scene," with Antonio and Shylock seated and passively awaiting their "well pronounced" "sentences," and the others mere audience to her "strained" rhetoric.

Though the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (i.e. Barbara Gaines) tried to do something interesting with the idea of "bearing witness," by having the actors who were not scripted in scenes seated and *watching those other scenes, to suggest either their tacit complicity in the "merry deed" or their culpability, in witnessing their compeers' action, in endorsing their behavior. Not sure I buy it (the performance choice), but it's an interesting choice, for sure.

Great to read about Shakespeare in performance again. . . Would love to see the Jew of Malta . . . hmmmm. . . how long is the run?

Flavia said...

Yes, I liked the play's interpretation of Portia's role for similar reasons--any staging that has Portia totally in control of the procedings winds up making her not only an unlikeable character (which isn't in itself important), but also a confusing and even incoherent one.

You should be able to find the TFANA schedule through the link in the post itself--but I believe that both plays run until about March 10th. I'm really curious to see whether they use the same set for Jew of Malta.

Horace said...

I am taking some students to London this Spring Break for some theatre new and old, and we may very well be seeing Merchant in Stratford... I'm not optimistic about the innovation, but I'll be thrilled to compare notes...and I may even print out your post to read before we go...

Nick Orsino said...

I came across your blog entry when I was searching the web to find a cast list for TFANA's "Merchant," and was very interested to read your analysis. Now that I've seen the production myself, I have some questions and comments of my own...if you'll allow me.

I agree that I thought Abraham's performance of Shylock was wonderfully nuanced and well-thought-out. Too, while I didn't always "get" precisely the conflicts that were arising in the Lorenzo/Jessica relationship, I could appreciate it as a whole as a depiction of the unexpectedly frought issues that can arise out of the blue in a marriage of mixed religions, even in a couple that were as "genuinely" in love as this Lorenzo and Jessica seemed to be (I put "genuinely" in quotes because I've seem productions where Lorenzo is an outright fortune-hunter and only interested in Jessica for her money, playing the fourth and fifth act as a disintigration into a potentially abusive marriage).

However, I left slightly unsatisfied with the rest of the pivotal relationships, chiefly among Portia, Bassanio, and Antonio. (Yet satisfied with the production overall -- I don't have to understand or agree with all the choices to be able to appreciate a production...especially one as difficult as "Merchant.") I would think that that's often a pitfall of productions of "Merchant": so much energy is spent answering the "Shylock question" that other relationships get relatively short shrift. You mention that the "merry bond" scene was particularly successful for you because the motivations behind it seemed clear; I agree. However, I found myself still questioning the trial scene. I totally concur that I don't necessarily want a Portia who's in complete command of the situation and of what she'll do, but when -- as you point out -- this Portia seemed to find herself so quickly in over her head, I ask myself, "What the heck was she thinking when she disguised herself as a lawyer in the first place?" Why, knowing the seriousness of the trial (after all, she learns at the end of the casket scene that Antonio's life is at stake), does she play dress-up as a lawyer and intervene with the proceedings? In TFANA's production there was more dramatic action with Portia's "clerks" upstage frantically scouring their iBooks and law books to come up with the legal justification for freeing Antonio, but once again -- if Portia doesn't know that from the start, does it make her seem dangerously cavalier with someone else's life to pass herself off as the de facto defense counsel? Is there another way to play the scene, then, that allows for Portia to be both confident in her knowledge and at sea with the proceedings? That, to me, is the difficulty of the scene.

Also, I think the fifth act is just a bitch to figure out. I've seen four other productions, and the return to Belmont is often played as a comic reconciliation of the lovers, with perhaps not-as-happy outcomes for Jessica and Antonio. This, to me, is what makes productions of "Merchant" seem anti-Semitic -- when the production itself seems to want the audience to rejoice in the reunion of the lovers, who themselves seem to have forgotten all the ugly events of the trial. (Can a "production" really be anti-Semitic? That's another topic.) At any rate, the TFANA "Merchant" for me fell into the trap that most other productions fall into, which is not following through with the emotions and realizations that the trial scene brings up. I mean, table Shylock's treatment for a moment -- Portia has seen her new husband kissing another man and professing he loved him more than his wife; where's THAT knowledge come into play in the last act? I don't know if Shakespeare intended the last scene to be played as high comedy; for me, today, the problem with "Merchant" is how to take the four preceding acts and make emotional sense of the end of the play -- for Portia, who has to remain married to Bassanio, for Bassanio, who knows that his wife has seen evidence of his relationship with Antonio, and for Antonio, who has to decide what he's going to do with his feelings for Bassanio as he starts a new life, presumably, in Belmont. Or whatever he does next.

Anyway, I love this play because there are no easy answers to its problems, and I love the discussions that productions of it engender -- there is always great stuff to overhear during the intermission. But I wonder what the most perfect production of "Merchant" for me would be.

By the way, as I said -- I came upon this blog while searching for a cast list for the production. Isn't it shameful of the theatre that I couldn't? Even the TFANA's own website doesn't list ANY of the actors in the show other than F. Murray Abraham. Just my two cents, but I think all of those actors deserve more recognition. Obviously we know who the headliner is, but to ignore everyone else??