Saturday, March 19, 2011

'The Merchant of Venice' Pays Off With Modern Staging But Remains A Tough Sell -- Theater Review

Theater Review

The Merchant of Venice
by Shakespeare
Bank of America Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 27, 2011

As with opera, ballet and much quality television, Shakespeare is an art form for which--for me--impassive appreciation far outweighs emotional affinity. Especially on a somewhat exhausted weeknight, Sir William's dense, poetic language, multi-faceted plots and myriad supporting characters can prove challenging for me to comprehend.

So when The Merchant of Venice appeared in town this week as part of my Broadway In Chicago series, which is comprised primarily of musicals, it was nice to note that at least an Oscar winner was starring in it.

I haven't seen F. Murray Abraham in much, or perhaps anything except a guest stint on The Good Wife, since he earned the Best Actor award for playing Salieri in Amadeus. It seems he's largely worked on stage and in Europe since then, and I was surprised to read just now on Wikipedia that he grew up in El Paso and was a gang member as a teenager.

He starred as Shylock, which is the lead but not title role in Merchant of Venice, and even from the balcony of the Bank of America Theatre, his acting prowess was readily apparent.

While I have seen several Shakespeare plays in a variety of stagings, and can appreciate the beauty of traditional garb, I also was initially pleased--and ultimately quite satisfied--with this rendition of Merchant being done in modern dress. Although it may sound ghastly to Elizabethan purists, the stage was adorned with Apple laptops & flat screen TVs, the character of Launcelot (right) was quite streetwise and the action was accompanied by a significant use of jazz.

With the inclusion of a very attractive woman--Kate MacCluggage--playing the primary female role of Portia, an heiress who welcomes numerous suitors, if I'm going to sit through Shakespeare for nearly three hours on a weeknight, this was about as user-friendly a version as I'm likely to get.

And for the most part I enjoyed it, except for the fact--or, well, my opinion--that The Merchant of Venice is a very ugly play with few likable or redeeming characters. I really don't know, and Wikipedia suggests it's an eternal debate, whether Shakespeare was commenting on anti-Semitism, simply reflecting it or perhaps even participating in it.

Certainly, Shylock, a moneylending Jew, is rather despicable for demanding a pound of flesh from Antonio, the titular merchant who is late in repaying him 3,000 ducats. Although the way Shylock is treated, before, while and after insisting on collecting on his debt with a sharp blade--even though the play is over 400 years old, I feel it wrong to reveal what happens--is also deplorable, and in the end unnecessarily degrading, I was just as puzzled by the great Sir William's need to tack on twenty frivolous minutes after what should have been a highly dramatic ending.

To me--and I'm obviously no Shakespearean scholar--the silly androgeny-based conclusion of the drama is as insulting as anything that precedes it, and actually undermines what had been quite compelling, although  troubling. If Shakespeare was indeed intending this play as a study of prejudice, the end only amplifies my belief that ignorance is no excuse for it.

But who am I to question Shakespeare? Even with some flaws, The Merchant of Venice is still a great play. Abraham is excellent and recites the famous "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech with panache, power and--given recent anti-Semitism spewed by John Galliano and (arguably) Charlie Sheen--particular resonance.

With all the caveats above, this is one of the most enjoyable productions I've seen of a Shakespearean work, so catching it during its brief Chicago run is certainly worth your while.

But that doesn't mean I hath not a few criticisms.

1 comment:

G1000 said...

See, I didn't think much of the modern staging. I thought it was kind of silly, and distracted from an otherwise stellar performance of what is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays.

As you said, few of the characters are likable. Shylock is really the only sympathetic character, and F. Murray Abraham was utterly fantastic in the role. And I think this production understood that, and showed the characters as the hypocritical and bigoted bullies they are. While one can argue that Portia gave Shylock a chance to show mercy, the way she and the other characters treat him is utterly disgusting. It's depressingly believable, though.

I truly believe Shakespeare understood that too. And what he did is to present the play as a comedy, when it's really a dark study of horrid human behavior as well as Shylock's own personal tragedy. That's just my take on it, though. In any case, really well done.