Monday, April 25, 2011
MODERN MERCHANT OF VENICE
This weekend I was lucky enough to catch the tail end of the run of The Merchant of Venice at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. Shakespeare's classic play was turned entirely on its head; with a contemporary setting, creative use of both cell phones and computers, subtlety suggestive humor, and tremendous performances. Most notable was the performance of Shylock, the Jewish money-lender, played by F. Murray Abraham. Abraham, who won the Oscar in 1984 for the role of Antonio Salieri in Amadeus, plays a similar kind of flawed, stubborn, and spiritual character. Shylock, who embodies every Jewish stereotype of the past couple centuries, is not written to be redeemed. Although some critics may argue that Shakespeare was making cultural commentary on antisemitism at the time and was not, himself, antisemitic, there's no denying that the play is unapologetic in its vilifying Jews. As is often the case, in the end, the villain is left with the fate he deserves. The Merchant of Venice is no different; the villain, clearly the Jew, is faced with the most horrific fate imaginable to him: losing most of his fortune and becoming a Christian. However, F Murray Abraham's performance was so gripping, nuanced, and human, he begs the audience to side with him...and we do. Somehow, the valiant Antonio (Jonathan Epstein) seems evil or corrupt. Abraham's performance was an education for an actor, and was incredible to see. Also noteworthy was the performance of Portia, played by Kate MacCluggage. The role of Portia may be one of the most demanding female roles in Shakespeare's breadth of work. There is a reversal of roles in this play: the women bestow the men with engagement rings, the women solve and close the legal case regarding the bond between Antonio and Shylock, Portia possess the wealth and fortune, etc. MacCluggage commanded the role with the strength, intellect, and grace required of Portia, not to mention ethereal beauty. It's a shame the play only ran from April 14-24, because it was probably the best Shakespeare I've seen performed by American actors.