×

The Merchant of Venice

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.

With:
Shylock - F. Murray Abraham Portia - Kate Forbes Antonio - Tom Nelis Bassanio - Saxon Palmer Nerissa - Christen Simon

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.

Popular on Variety

The Merchant of Venice

The Duke on 42nd Street; 199 seats; $69 top

Production: A Theater for a New Audience presentation of a play in two acts by William Shakespeare. Directed by Darko Tresnjak.

Creative: Sets, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, David Weiner; sound, Jane Shaw; video, Matthew Myhrum; dramaturg, Michael Feingold; production stage managers, Renee Lutz and Jamie Rose Thoma. Opened Feb. 4, 2007. Reviewed Feb. 2. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast: Shylock - F. Murray Abraham Portia - Kate Forbes Antonio - Tom Nelis Bassanio - Saxon Palmer Nerissa - Christen SimonWith: Kenajuan Bentley, Arnie Burton, Cameron Folmar, Ezra Knight, John Lavelle, Nicole Lowrance, Vince Nappo, Matthew Schenk.

More Legit

  • David-Alan-Grier-Blair-Underwood

    David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood to Star in 'A Soldier's Play' on Broadway

    David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood will star in a Broadway production of Pulitzer-Prize winning drama “A Soldier’s Play.” The play, written by Charles Fuller, is set in 1944 and follows a murder mystery centered around the death of black Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (played by Grier) who is found on a Louisiana army base. [...]

  • The Inheritance review

    'The Inheritance' Announces Broadway Cast

    After an Olivier-winning run in London, “The Inheritance” is gearing up for its Broadway debut. The two-part epic has set the cast for its transfer from the West End to the Great White Way. John Benjamin Hickey, Paul Hilton, Samuel H. Levine, Andrew Burnap and Kyle Soller are among the cast members reprising their roles [...]

  • Patrick Page, Amber Grey, Eva Noblezada,

    'Hadestown' Announces 2020 National Tour

    ‘Hadestown’, the eight-time Tony award winning Broadway musical, is set for a national tour in 2020. The show will stop in more than 30 cities including Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New Orleans, and more. The musical is a stage adaptation of the Greek myths of Orpheus and Eurydice and King Hades and his wife [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Listen: Why Jake Gyllenhaal Is His 'Best Self' in the Theater

    Looking for the best possible version of Jake Gyllenhaal? You’ll find it onstage, according to the actor himself. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “I am my best self when I’m working in the theater,” Gyllenhaal said on the latest episode Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast, on which he appeared with Carrie Cracknell, the director of [...]

  • Photo: Jeremy Daniel

    'The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical' Gets Broadway Run

    “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” is Broadway bound. The musical adaptation of the franchise about a teenager who discovers he’s the son of Poseidon hits the Great White Way on Sept. 20 ahead of an Oct. 16 opening night. It comes on the heels of an extensive, nationwide tour that took the show [...]

  • Tom Sturridge Jake Gyllenhaal

    Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge Celebrate 'Sea Wall/A Life' With Star-Studded Opening Night

    A star-studded audience looked on as Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge returned to the stage for their double monologue performance in “Sea Wall/A Life.” Theater-goers and celebs including Anne Hathaway, Tom Hiddleston and John Mulaney gathered in Manhattan’s Hudson Theatre for opening night, celebrating a show tackling grief, birth and death through the eyes of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content