Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Mercy, Mercy Me

April 17, 2011

F. Murray Abraham and Melissa Miller and Jessica Photo: Gerry Goodstein/TFANA

Perhaps one of the most respected theater companies in New York, the Theater for a New Audience has spent three decades producing forward-thinking revivals of Shakespeare and other playwrights both off-Broadway and around the world. The company has collaborated with some of the biggest names in today’s theater world, so it’s quite exciting to have them in Los Angles as part of their current tour at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, one of the few venues left in the city willing and able to present this kind of work to local audiences. So hurray for the Broad and hurray for this production of The Merchant of Venice directed by Darko Tresnjak. Following its premiere in 2007, this modern dress staging of one of Shakespeare’s most problematic of problem plays has garnered great reviews everywhere it’s been. In this case, you can believe what you read. Tresnjak updates the action of the play to the “near future” where the world of 14th-century Italian commerce is re-envisioned as the corporate world of Wall Street with its HD monitors, business suits, and frosted glass. There are smart phones and gadgets at every turn. The production relies on a rather simple set that is dominated by little more than three monitors and three Apple laptop computers that serve as Portia’s caskets. But it’s a good looking show that makes the few props that are used, a glittering knife, a plexiglass chair, pop in contrast to their surroundings.

Of course this is Merchant so the matter of who plays Shylock is of utmost importance. It’s catnip for the greatest actors, and Oscar-winner F Murray Abraham is one of the biggest draws in the show. His is a Shylock devoid of some of the physical and vocal trappings used by others to connote Shylock’s ethnic heritage. Which has the effect of making some of the more jarring racial epitaphs used by other characters in the story all the more unsettling by making this world seem exceptionally familiar to our own. Abraham’s Shylock is a more deliberative and argumentative than a purely angry or rageful one. The other pole in this play is Portia, the young woman who wins the Merchant’s life and humiliates Shylock though having never met him before. Kate MacCluggage gives a lovely performance as Portia’s rage blossoms out of the whirlwind romance she has embarked upon. There are many other solid performances in the cast, like Jacob Ming-Trent’s assured and funny Launcelot Gobbo, and a heartbreaking Melissa Miller as Jessica, Shylock's daughter.

Tresnjak does go for a strategy similar to the one that Daniel Sullivan recently used in the Public Theater’s The Merchant of Venice seen in New York last Fall and Winter. By shifting the focus to Portia and portraying the events of the play as ultimately a betrayal of her trust in Bassanio, Tresnjak creates a believable balance between the romantic comedy and the jarring anti-Semitism expressed by characters in the play. Tresnjak doesn’t quite carry this line of thought out as far as Sullivan does, and this Merchant still has a happy ending that is a little outside of the believable for a modern audience with the play’s three central couples dancing off into the sunset. Tresnjak is also somewhat more ambivalent about Portia’s higher moral virtues particularly in the first two acts. On the other hand though, this production is a little more blunt about the homosexual subtext of the relationship between Bassanio and Antonio, the Merchant, when the former plants a kiss on his beloved confidant in the climactic trial scene. It’s not enough to seem out of context, but certainly makes a sharp point about another of the work’s subtexts. And any production of The Merchant of Venice that communicates this much complexity and does it so well is worth seeing. This is a great chance to see the highest quality New York theater right here in Los Angeles, so hurry up and don’t miss this show before it ends next Sunday.


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