The Merchant of Venice Starring F. Murray Abraham

The world of merchant banking/security trading is a perfect setting for this touring production of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

F. Murray Abraham reprises his now-famous role of Shylock from the original 2007 production directed by Darko Tresnjak and presented by Theatre For A New Audience.

Set in the high-powered world of Wall Street at some indeterminate time in the future, this Merchant focuses less on the sympathetic interpretation of the anti-Semitism hurled at Shylock, and instead focuses on the inner complexity that makes him both relentlessly vengeful and redeemable as a tragic figure, humanizing him as something more than a stand-in for a whole ethnicity.

John Lee Beatty’s stark ultra-modern scenic design featuring MacBooks, flatscreen television screens and a minimalist set makes it easy for an audience to grasp Tresnjak’s point: anti-Semitism has remained a constant through history, yet there is something in Shakespeare’s treatment of it that makes it relevant, regardless of the milieu in which his play is set.

Marlowe’s “competing” play from the same era, The Jew of Malta, features a violent and evil title character with very little humanity, Marlowe’s character reels in the worst anti-Semitic stereotypes, while Shylock, in both Broadway’s current traditional staging and in this post-Bernie Madoff vision is profoundly human: dark and complex, simultaneously sympathetic and repulsive. Abraham does an excellent job of bringing out those layers that reside deep within Shylock’s psyche.

Not that he’s the sole villain of this play. Antonio (Jonathan Epstein) is equally conflicted and Epstein subtly goes about portraying Antonio’s own hatred for Shylock and Jews in general without restraint while exploring another layer of overt unrequited adoration (homosexual love?) for his beloved young friend Bassanio (Graham Hamilton.)

Let’s not forget Portia (Kate MacCluggage), who is a bit racist and has no problem pointing out her repulsion for the dark skin of one of her suitors (Raphael Nash Thompson). She voices her racism to Nerissa (Christen Simon Marabate) who, pointedly is herself black. The unspoken hypocrisy in which this scene revels speaks volumes. That racial through-line is completed with the portrayal of Lancelot Gobo by another black actor, Jacob Ming-Trent, comically spewing and rapping anti-Semitic sentiments towards Shylock.

Tresnjak’s ultra-modernist reading of the play, a success in every respect especially thematically reminds us how human nature has a lethal tendency to remain the same. We’ve come a long way as far as our technology is concerned, but we still have a long way to go if we’re to put our differences aside.

Performances at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica through April 24. Visit www.thebroadstage.com or call 310-434-3200 for tickets.

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About Obed Medina
Obed received his BA in Creative Writing from the University of California at Riverside. He has freelanced and volunteered at various theatre companies in Los Angeles since 2002. He launched his own workshop theatre company in 2008 and has produced six original one-act plays and one Off-Broadway hit. Currently, he is living in Ashland, Oregon working on his writing and founder of Collaborative Theatre Project.

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