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Sunday, February 11, 2007

two pounds for the price of one

Here in New York, Theatre for a New Audience is currently staging Marlowe's The Jew of Malta and Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice in repertory with the same cast but, unusually, different directors. Each production typifies the best and worst ways to stage difficult canonical plays. Both plays star F. Murray Abraham, and he plays both roles straight: he is as monstrous a Barabas as Marlowe could have wished, and he plays Shylock with equal conviction.

I was excited by the idea of seeing the texts played without irony, but that really only happens in Venice. In Malta, the cast does not seem to be acting under the same director as the star. Malta, directed by David Herskovits, visually appears to be set in the past, yet there are all kinds of mindless interventions of cheek and faux-irony to make the production a theatrical cacophony devoid of apparent design. Friars Jacomo and Barnardine do battle with staffs, Hong Kong style; Barnardine gets busy with a nun's corpse; and one of the characters actually says 'bi-otch'. Oy.

Now, if these revisions served a new reading of the text, they might have worked. But all they accomplished was to distract from the possibility that Abraham's un-ironic performance as Barabas might move the audience to outrage or at least a perplexing discomfort. I am reminded of last fall's Hell House, a totally un-ironic performance of an actual evangelical scarefest staged by Les Freres Corbusier, and how difficult it was to come to grips with what I was seeing. If the measure of artistic success is to take us to unexpected emotional terrain, Hell House was a theatrical triumph. I was confused and uncomfortable from start to finish and long afterward. A similar opportunity may have been missed in Malta.

Darko Tresnjak, the other director, had a coherent vision of how to stage The Merchant of Venice. Last year, he directed an unusually dark production of All's Well That Ends Well for TFANA, and his Merchant was staged in a similar spirit. The cast was all on the same page, and the anachronisms—Apple laptops, mobiles, modern suits—made sense in a play set in an age of international commerce.

The trial scene is fierce here, and Tom Nelis as Antonio, with his Merchant-Ivory upper-class looks and dressed in a three-piece grey wool suit befitting a 1930's English fascist aristocrat, was so hateful, though without ever being a caricature, that I wanted Abraham to cut him in real life. Shylock's pain was palpable and the rightness of his desire for vengeance irresistible in Abraham's very pathetic portrayal. (Is it too late to bring back the original meaning of 'pathetic'?)

But the legal deck is, of course, stacked against him. Shylock can extract Antonio's flesh but, as a Jew, he cannot draw a Christian's blood, and, worst of all, being a Jew makes him an 'alien' and not subject to equal standing in a court of law:
Tarry, Jew,
The Law hath yet another hold on you.
It is enacted in the laws of Venice,
If it be proved against an alien,
That by direct or indirect attempts
He seek the life of any citizen [...]
(Act four, scene one)

Alien? Citizen? Shylock may as well have been Dred Scott. The scene is then played for maximum humiliation, and Abraham makes it painful to watch.

But what really makes the production risky and smart is that once Shylock leaves the stage, the play makes its merry way to a traditional Shakespearean comedy finale: the disguises are revealed, the lovers forgiven, and the newlyweds are all beautiful and young. (They even use Apple PowerBooks. Regular readers of the blog know what that means.)

Wait a second. One doesn't want these people to be happy and beautiful. One wants them to be ugly and vulgar and to see their bigotry denounced from the mountaintops. Couldn't they goose-step around the stage with Nazi armbands or at least use Microsoft Windows? Ah, but playing it straightforwardly as a Shakespearean comedy rather than an obvious indictment of Elizabethan anti-Semitism makes it more obnoxious than didacticism can ever accomplish.

The lightest ending is the darkest: the Jew-haters are pretty, happy, and untroubled. We don't have to be beat over the heads to know that sometimes the bad guys win, and that makes for the most galling ending of all.


Anonymous David said...

Hi Jeff, nice to see that the erudition and wide range of interest you showed when I met you at Luke's is entering the public domain.
Did you see Pacino in Shylock?
Good luck, David

9:54 AM, February 11, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

David F., welcome to my blog. I had heard you were reading it. Thanks for the props.

Strangely, that was my first Merchant. I had already seen thirty-five other Shakespeare plays but never that one. I now have just three left to see on stage. I've seen Pacino on stage in O'Neill, Brecht, and Wilde but never Shakespeare. How was he?

1:25 AM, February 12, 2007

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought he was very good. Acted very Jewish so that part got highlighted

5:25 PM, February 12, 2007

Anonymous The Mighty Bosch said...

What a peculiar comment! F. Murray Abraham played the scenes where Shylock or Barabas was supposed to "act very Jewish" with a sharp edge of irony: what is seen as somehow essential is but a performance for the gentiles. One doesn't want to confuse the performance of religion and the spectacle of identity with some essential characteristic; Abraham didn't.

BTW, the "Merchant Ivory" reference in the original post is spot on. Both plays were intrusively directed, and the supporting cast lacked any charisma: it was as if Abraham was performing with a gaggle of cocky, but not supremely talented college drama students.

12:09 AM, February 13, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

The Mighty Bosch is right that the rest of the cast is poorly matched with the star, F. Murray Abraham. I saw Malta first, and the cast was like night and day from one night to another, i.e. they were so bad in Malta that they seemed like a different cast in Merchant. Their lightweight quality was not a problem for me in Merchant because they played it as a Shakespearean comedy, which is how the play is classified. They could have been playing A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Delacorte, though a notch below quality-wise.

Genre-wise, the Shylock character doesn't really belong in the play. Aside from Malvolio, he is the only unforgiven comedic character in Shakespeare's comedies (unless we think Shakespeare meant Shylock's forced conversion as a reconciliation suitable to a comedy, but that is a thought too horrible to countenance). We tend to forget that the merchant in the title is not Shylock but Antonio.

In short, Abraham played Shylock the only way one can for a modern audience: not as a Malvolio but as a man suffering the thousand natural shocks that Jewish flesh was heir to in Europe at the time. The rest of the cast played a Shakespearean comedy as they are typically played.

11:27 AM, February 13, 2007

Anonymous The Mighty Bosch said...

I agree that the cast attempted to play MoV as a comedy, but their lack of charisma, their lack of wit, and their lazy reliance on the shock of anachronism for laughs meant that they failed in their comic performance. It was not their "lightweight quality" I objected to, nor was there some failure on my part to appreciate that they were trying to play it as a "typical" Shakespearean comedy; rather, I objected to their failure to bring any comic weight to the superficially light touches of the comic moments, and their stilted, clumsy readings of the lines.

Their poorly-rendered comic stylings also undermined Abraham's readings of Barabas and Shylock. Abraham did not simply perform Shylock and Barabas as dignified victims of bullying anti-Semites, but was willing to bring out the nastiness and the venality of the characters. His ironic and bitter touches would have been beautifully mirrored in the cheerful banter and witty romance of a well-performed typical Shakespearean comedy. But, alas, 'twas not to be.

12:38 PM, February 13, 2007


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