28 February 2011

TFANA’s 'Merchant of Venice' (2007)

[From 6 January to 11 March 2007, the Theatre for a New Audience presented a repertory of two classic plays at the Duke on 42nd Street starring F. Murray Abraham. The respected actor played Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Barabas in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. I saw both shows near the end of the run and reported on them later that month. Since TFANA’s scheduled a revival of Merchant with the same star and director (27 February-13 March, at Pace University’s Michael Schimmel Center in lower Manhattan), I’m posting my original report of the 2007 production for readers of ROT.

[Contrasts with Abraham’s turn in Marlowe’s Jew as directed by David Herskovits were inevitable—even expected in 2007. But there could, of course, be no comparative discussion of Abraham and Darko Tresnjak's Shylock and the Al Pacino version of the current Broadway production; it hadn’t happened yet, of course.]

My friend Diana and I saw The Merchant of Venice on Friday, 2 March 2007, at TFANA's season’s abode (it's itinerant), the Duke Theatre on 42nd Street. (It's one of those theater spaces in a highrise that was either built or renovated during the revival of 42nd Street, right in the center of the honky-tonk.) I'd never been to anything here, and it’s a rather nice space. A little high-tech in decor, perhaps, but functional, with good sightlines—it's a thrust configuration—and no obstructions. It's a small enough theater that no seat’s far from the stage—even the little balconies that run around three sides of the auditorium. We were in the last row ('F,' mind you!) of the "orchestra," if that's what they call it there, and we had perfect views and no hearing problems.

I didn't know Serbian-born director Darko Tresnjak's work, though he had been the artistic director at San Diego's Old Globe and had directed in several theaters around the country. He'd done a lot of Shakespeare, which showed, but I didn't know if he'd approached them with a similar eye. In Merchant, he turned Venice into Wall Street 2007 (sets by John Lee Beatty, lighting by David Weiner, sound by Jane Shaw)—all high-tech (to fit nicely with the theater's atmosphere, fortuitously—or maybe not) and high fashion. (Costume designer Linda Cho must have had a ball shopping at all the high-end stores for her costumes—all at least resembling the top designers. Fashion Week at TFANA!) The set was minimal: a few slim tables (mostly for three laptops which took the places of Portia's three caskets—rather cleverly, too) were the only permanent pieces, then the occasional chair or such, all in a glass-and-steel shell like one of those postmodern office buildings of lower Manhattan and elsewhere. Three flat video screens hung over the stage on a balustrade across the back, serving as a stock ticker, the labels on Portia's caskets, and other varying visual images. (The atmosphere was partially set before the show started as the screens displayed the usual anti-cellphone warning in Italian, English, and Yiddish or Hebrew respectively.) Everyone on stage came equipped with a cellphone—one servant had an earpiece receiver permanently attached to his temple as if he’d just escaped from a Borg collective—and there were laptops, PDA's, cellphone and digital cameras (with which all Portia's suitors got their servants to take their pictures with the lady, as if they'd been stopped by paparazzi on the red carpet at some Hollywood event), and other gear all over the set. I felt that Tresnjak may have fallen a little too in love with the notion of the 21st-century update and it was really a gimmick, but it did no damage and was often kind of fun. Many of the messengers were enhanced (instead of standing in front of the other actor, they were in some other part of the set)—or replaced—with cellphone calls, and the casket bits worked rather nicely with a computer-animated image voicing the messages for each suitor—like the end of some computer game melded with one of those TV game shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. One of the best bits—a tiny one, but one that worked very well—happened during Portia and Nerissa's run-through of the prospective suitors they were awaiting. When Nerissa named the English baron and Portia ran him down until she said, "He is a proper man's picture," Nerissa had just showed her his photo on her cellphone! All in all, it was a tad precious, but it was no Hamlet on rollerskates. Strictly speaking, it wasn't really necessary for making new points about the play or its characters—but it did no harm. And the kind of mercenary soullessness of the Wall Street milieu worked well with Tresnjak's bleak vision.

At first I thought the attempt to marry a 21st-century look and behavior to the 16th-century language and situation wasn't working and the actors were self-conscious and forced, but I later decided it was just one actor who somehow just didn't ring true—John Lavelle's Gratiano. It was as if he was trying to play a poseur but couldn't pull it off credibly—a poseur poseur, you might say. Otherwise I thought the cast was all quite good, though there were no real standouts among the ensemble. (One possible exception would be Arnie Burton, who played Balthazar, Portia's servant-cum-personal assistant. As he ushered in the series of suitors, he eyed their posse for potential hook-ups—and silently signaled one to call him after the guy's master lost his marriage gamble. But even Burton's little characterization was more the result of amusing choices he and Tresnjak made than an extraordinary quality of his acting.)

The true exception was, as you might have guessed, Abraham. Everything he did on stage was solid, real, believable, anchored. This was a man who knew what he was up to, had total confidence in his choices and preparation, his art. Next to the rest of the cast, as good as they were, he was an adult working with adolescents. In terms of his character, he didn't apologize for Shylock or soften him. He demanded his "bond," a word he emphasized so often it became a litany—unabashedly, knowing what his insistence made him seem. He didn't care. Even when he was beaten in court, he simply acquiesced—even as he cowered beneath a table, his yarmulke having been snatched off his head in an act of humiliation. He knew where he stood in this society, and he was just not going to beg or play the fool for them. Abraham and Tresnjak's Shylock, though often moving and righteously defiant, wasn’t a pleasant man, not a tragic hero, not an undeserving victim, not a sympathetic figure. Circumstances (that is, casual, societal, and deliberate anti-Semitism) had made him what he was, but Shylock refused to play the game even when it would have been to his advantage. Abraham let the contradictions in Shylock show, as when Antonio (Tom Nelis) viciously spat at him in court, after having won his case, and Shylock unhesitantly spat right back. In the end, however defeated, this Shylock was the equal in savagery of his Christian abusers—not a positive character trait, but a worthy theatrical achievement.

Shylock's relentless pursuit of money (Did he care more about the loss of his daughter, Jessica, or the loss of the ducats she took when she left?) might have made him a stereotype, except that everyone in this play was out for money one way or another. Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. In fact, nothing in this play was given away: it was all bartered, sold, traded, leveraged, or gambled—even love (filial or romantic). Money did, indeed, make this world go 'round. And everyone suspected he was being (or about to be) cheated—even if only romantically, if not financially.

Abraham was stunning as Shylock, reaching down into his depths to find the force of his basest feelings while at the same time recognizing that that's what they are. I don't know if his hands are actually exceptionally large, but they seemed so here. When he raised his arms or extended a hand to shake Antonio's (who refused), Abraham's palms and fingers looked immense. They weren't long-fingered and bony, like the classic image of Fagin; and he didn't make ham-fists like some over-the-hill fighter. The image I kept having was of 1962's horror flick, Hands of a Stranger. In any case, for me, Abraham's hands, which he seemed to flourish often, consistently drew my focus. For the rest of his characterization, his Shylock was never overtly impassioned; with all the strong emotions swirling around him—hatred, love, greed, generosity, vengeance, loyalty, friendship, fear—even in Shakespeare’s words, Abraham is composed, as if it all meant little to him (until his daughter betrays him, that is). Other Shylocks may seem like Jewish Lears, blustering and blowing in anger and revenge (like, perhaps Al Pacino’s 2004 film rendition), but Abraham was cool. For me, this made him all the more powerful—he was a stealth avenger. The rattlesnake lets you know he’s preparing to strike. The copperhead gives no signal. The venom of the one may be as strong as that of the other—but consider which is the more sinister threat.

Tresnjak made sure we saw the anti-Semitism and other kinds of bigoted behavior—it wasn’t soft-pedaled or lightened; indeed, the program had three pages of notes on anti-Semitism to make sure we knew what his theme was. Antonio, otherwise the stalwart friend, made no bones about his unreasoning hatred of Shylock and Jews; Portia (Kate Forbes) made pointed racist remarks about a Moorish suitor—to the silent consternation of Nerissa, who was black (Christen Simon); Lancelot Gobbo, also played by a black actor (Kenajuan Bentley), left the wealthy Shylock's employment for that of the impoverished Bassanio with a torrent of anti-Semitic curses (raising, intentionally I'm sure, the specter of the black anti-Semitism of contemporary America). And Shylock wasn’t immune from vicious hatred, either: Rather than the "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech, it’s his courtroom exegesis of the unreasonableness of human hate that was the key text in this production: "It is my humour." (Time Out New York’s review by Adam Feldman included a photo caption that read: “Trial by Jewry.”) Tresnjak’s Merchant stressed Shylock's equality in vehemence and bloodthirstiness with the Venetians who provoke him—no side was seen to better effect than the other—they’re all nasty pieces of work.

[This report, originally written on 13 March 2007, was part of a longer discussion of both plays in the TFANA rep. It included a little comparison of the two plays and the two productions (which had the same casts and, mostly, design teams, but different directors). In fact, the plays were intended to be juxtaposed, and most of the published reviews contrasted both the scripts and lead characters and the productions and performances. In order to present the report on Merchant as a stand-alone article, I’ve had to excise the references to The Jew of Malta, and the resulting report’s been edited slightly for continuity. Otherwise, it’s essentially my evaluation of the experience I had four years ago.

[TFANA’s Merchant sold out in its original 2007 OB run and in the Royal Shakespeare Company's 2006-7 Complete Works Festival at its home in Stratford-on-Avon, a year-long celebration of the Bard presenting all his works, including his poetry. After its return to New York, the TFANA production of Merchant will be embarking on the company's first national tour, stopping in Chicago (15-27 March, Bank of America Theatre), Boston (29 March–10 April, Majestic Theatre), and L.A. (14-24 April, Broad Stage, Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center).]

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