Some modern interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays are so standard that they might as well be penciled into the quartos. Malvolio, for instance, will be played for sympathy in “Twelfth Night” as surely as the actors playing Oberon and Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will be double-cast as Theseus and Hippolyta. But while those choices might have been illuminating decades ago, repetition has made them facile. There’s little chance, then, that Theater for a New Audience can make “The Merchant of Venice” feel vital. Though the company’s production is respectable, it’s utterly beholden to entrenched ideas.
Granted, you have to deal with Shylock. The plot hinges on the humiliation of the Jewish moneylender — who demands a pound of flesh from merchant Antonio after he fails to repay a debt — and the anti-Semitism of the supposedly heroic Christian characters can be horrifying. Any director must decide how to stage the play without seeming to endorse the hatred heaped on Shylock’s back.
Like many before him, helmer Darko Tresnjak makes the Jew’s suffering raw and painful: After Portia (Kate Forbes) dupes Shylock (F. Murray Abraham) out of his revenge and then persuades a judge to not only take his property but also force him to become a Christian, we see him collapse in despair. Yarmulke torn from his head, he slouches off the stage while his tormentors crow.
Abraham — who also plays the lead in TFANA’s “The Jew of Malta,” running in rep with “Merchant” — gives a compelling perf, letting rage and hurt escape from his voice without relying too heavily on physical signifiers. As he faces those who spit in his face, the general stillness lets him cling fiercely to dignity.
But while Tresnjak may have decided to make Shylock a victim, he doesn’t complete the other half of the equation implied by that choice. For Shylock’s suffering to have power, he needs to seem genuinely threatened, but the Christians in this production are harmless.
Portia and her maid Nerissa (Christen Simon) are sassy like sitcom girlfriends, so even in the climactic court scene, they seem like they’re goofing around. Antonio’s friends — particularly John Lavelle as Gratiano — are so cartoonishly meat-headed that their taunts become ridiculous instead of menacing. Without palpable danger, Shylock’s suffering becomes academic.
Other choices also play like half-hearted deference to current trends in thought, which can make the production feel unfocused.
For instance, as the latest designer to link the play’s talk of money with modern greed, John Lee Beatty fills the stage with Apple Power Books, so that men in expensive suits can type with cold efficiency. But by themselves, computers can’t dig very deeply. The modern touches are too superficial to add anything to the conversation about “Merchant’s” reflection of our corporate age.
Tresnjak elevates the much-analyzed gay subtext between Antonio (Tom Nelis) and his friend Bassanio (Saxon Palmer) to a full-on stage kiss, but in the context of the production’s other recycled concepts, even this gesture feels rote. It would be a more surprising development if Antonio didn’t swoon for Bassanio at all.