Circling each other like vultures dying of starvation, Antonio and Shylock give the all-male theater company Propeller’s “The Merchant of Venice” a sadistic kick straight out of “Titus Andronicus.” Half revenge tragedy, half romantic comedy, the new production solves the play’s thorniest relational problems by caging its warring factions (Christian, Jew, Turk) in a literal prison. Helmer Edward Hall and designer Michael Pavelka create a whole new set of difficulties with the three-tiered coed jailhouse, but the company’s faultless performances and gorgeous a capella musical adornments render the text aud-friendly and crystal clear.
Pavelka’s cell block is a three-story venue for a two-story play — Shakespeare, ever the literary klepto, liberated the tales of the Bond of Flesh and the Casket Choice from folklore and myth. By putting the two stories behind bars together, Pavelka and Hall have figured out how to make the play’s ethnic troubles a little more balanced; there’s an anti-Semitic Christian faction and a Christian-hating Jewish faction in this jail.
Thus liberated, the wonderful Richard Clothier is free to play Shylock as a Machiavellian badass, crafting alliances when he can and viciously assaulting his enemies when he must. Antonio (Bob Barrett) is even worse, refusing to get his hands dirty while his league of hymn-singing Christian followers bully the minority gang for amusement.
The two men are clearly set up as equals and rivals, but Clothier’s Shylock has a kind of basement morality that makes him our hero. When his daughter Jessica (Jon Trenchard) converts and runs away with the Christian Lorenzo (Richard Dempsey), Clothier’s transformation into an implacable avenger makes us desperate to stand by him, or at least not in front of him (Sam Swainsbury’s Salerio, who drops in to taunt Shylock, regrets that decision). The likewise excellent Barrett brings a terrifically hateful self-righteousness to his part, calling into question whether his heart is even big enough for the pound of flesh he owes Shylock.
Perhaps the weirdest (and best) parallel the production draws is between Shylock’s weak spot and Antonio’s: Gentle Jessica is the apple of Shylock’s eye; Bassanio (Jack Tarlton) is Antonio’s bitch. The protestations of deep friendship in the script have so many sexual connotations to a modern audience that it was just a hop, skip and a jump to Propeller’s full-blown romance (and it is a romance, if a strange one); the decision to make it overt deforms the rest of the play in interesting ways. For one thing, it makes Antonio and Portia (Kelsey Brookfield) rivals.
Portia and Jessica are the hardest characters to justify in the context of the prison — even given that Shylock and Antonio have the run of the place, would they really put the two women (three, counting Portia’s servant Nerissa, played by Chris Myles) in such dangerous company? Uncharacteristically, Hall’s solution to this problem is largely to ignore it.
It doesn’t much matter. Brookfield is arguably the best of a very good lot, and he bounces wonderfully off Myles when the jokes start flying. Moreover, Brookfield’s mastery of the character extends into that weirdest of Shakespearean zones: a man playing a woman disguised as a man. When, in the climactic courtroom scene, he must play Portia passing for a male lawyer, Brookfield does so perfectly, without any winking or jokiness; mostly, he looks appropriately scared. With the added dimensions of the Antonio/Bassanio coupling (both of whom are present at Portia’s defense of the former), the whole scene is a master class in truthful performance.
It’s hard to overstate how fun and watchable the entire production manages to be despite a half-dozen layers of meaning and the ever-widening gap between contemporary language and that of the play, written in the late 16th century. As time goes by and English evolves, theater companies will continue to have to chase down Shakespeare’s language in order to make audiences understand what the hell he was talking about without a copy of the play and a magnifying glass. It’s gratifying that Propeller still manages to pull off that increasingly difficult trick so well.