March 12th, 2011

La Loge

The Merchant of Venice

This is a difficult play.  It's supposed to be a comedy, and it is, in the formal sense that it begins with order, moves through chaos, and ends in the restoration of order, plus three weddings.  But the actual comic parts are full of mean-spirited ethnic humor, the long-suffering Christian protagonist Antonio is an anti-Semitic zealot, the romantic hero Bassiano swears oaths he then more-or-less thoughtlessly breaks, Portia begs Shylock to show mercy, but shows damn little to him.  There's a fairy tale comedy about a princess (or at least an heiress) who must give herself in marriage to the man who picks the right symbolic box, a family tragedy about a girl who robs her father and runs off with a feckless wastrel, and a political drama about a deeply broken economic system that creates a fertile environment for racial hatred, financial ruin, and moral bankruptcy.

Huh.  It sounds a lot like Real Life in the USA in the new millenium, doesn't it?

In his Director's notes, Darko Tresnjak says he was thinking of the racial and economic tensions of his native Yugoslavia when he mounted this production in 2007, but that this latest version owes more to Wall Street:  "The surface-rich, cash-poor society of The Merchant of Venice, with its irrational cultural myths, exclusionary tendencies, mounting tensions and scare tactics, seems increasingly like our own," he writes, and certainly that's the way he's framed the play.  Antonio, Bassiano, Gratiano, and the rest wear nicely-cut conservative suits, consult Macs, use cell phones and Bluetooth.  Work--or more properly, commerce--tinges all their interactions.  Their power is in their money, their access, their community of insiders.  Portia's power is signaled by her sleek blondness, her stiletto heels, discreet jewelry, form-fitting dresses, and the fact that she has a villa and a personal assistant and a major domo to help her run it.  Shylock is an outlier to the social system that gives the white, Christian characters their privilege.  Antonio and the rest talk about his power, but demonstrate over and over again that he has none.

And I'm talking about the play again instead of the production.

It's that kind of production.  It takes a text I had thought about and made me rethink it in mind-bending ways.  For instance, both Launcelot Gobbo and Nerissa are played by black actors.  Which makes all the classist remarks directed towards them racist as well, and Portia's line to Nerissa about the Prince of Morocco ("Let all of his complexion choose me so") not only racist, but casually cruel, and makes Gratiano's "I have a wife whom I protest I love;/ I would she were in heaven, so she could/Entreat some power to change this currish Jew" even more insulting.   The dynamic between Shylock and Jessica is crystallized in the scene in which Shylock, on a balcony above, is praying wrapped in his tallis, and Jessica, wearing a shapeless dress, is resentfully polishing the Shabbas candlesticks below.  When she shows up at Belmont with Lorenzo, she's in a floofy pink dress above her knees, showing her shoulders and teetering in high-heeled pumps she takes off at the first opportunity.  I really noticed the resonance of the three rings, and how the men unthinkingly privileged their relationships with each other over their relationships with the women they professed to love, and how, in the end, everything in this play comes down to money and the power money confers.  Just as it does in The Jew of Malta, with which this production was originally performed in repertory in 2007, with F. Murray Abraham as both jews.

Oh, F. Murray Abraham.  Words fail me.  He is the most individual Shylock I've ever seen.  He is bitter, he is angry, he is blind, he is deeply, deeply damaged by living and working in a society that disenfranchises, belittles, and isolates him.  He weeps for the loss of his ducats because his anger will not let him weep for the loss of his daughter, which in turn fuels the mad quest for vengeance against Antonio that finally breaks him.  His Shylock is proud, prickly, an observant man, but not necessarily a religious one.  This reading of the play needs a strong Antonio to balance Shylock and set him off, and Tom Nelis (who I suspect I've seen before, but his bio is too sparing of specific details for me to tell in what) is just the ticket.  To his friends, he's the Parfait Gentle Christian:  kind, generous, charitable.  To anyone outside his circle, he is a cold, distant, self-righteous prig.  To Shylock, he is simply hateful.  Certainly nobody deserves having a pound of flesh cut from their breast, but Nelis makes us see why Shylock--or any reasonably proud human being--would very much want to.

Portia, sadly, didn't fare quite as well.  I liked Kate MacCluggage very much in the Belmont scenes, where she played Grace Kelly with considerable wit.  But the court scene was just laughable.  Portia has to be smarter than everybody else around her and in complete control of the scene from the beginning.  She gives Shylock the chance to act like a mensch, and when he doesn't take it, comes down on him with the full rigor of the Venetian law.  This Portia wasn't in much control of anything.  Part of this was the director's fault--he had her servant Balthazar searching for precedents on his computer while she was concluding that Shylock was justified in law, and producing the saving twist out of panic and desperation.  And her suit didn't begin to fit her, although it fit better than poor Nerissa's.

OK, I have to stop now.  I'm going to see another play this afternoon.  It is a truism that it's harder to write about something you love than something you have reservations about.  I feel that I'm floundering here, and perhaps that's why.  Or maybe it's the weather.  In any case, if you want a more coherent review, here's what The New York Times has to say about it.