If you’ve scanned the headlines recently, you have no doubt been freshly reminded that the toxin of anti-Semitism has hardly been eradicated from contemporary culture. In the last couple of weeks it has surfaced spectacularly in the worlds of show business and fashion, blighting, if not ending, two major careers.
How oddly fitting, in these strange circumstances, that New York should play host to a terrific production of “The Merchant of Venice,” arriving just weeks after the last one closed. The new staging, from Theater for a New Audience, features F. Murray Abraham as Shylock. (I don’t need to remind you of who starred in the just-closed Broadway version, do I?) The production, directed by Darko Tresnjak and originally produced in 2007, can be seen at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University through March 13 before a tour to Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles.
Modern dress is often the default choice of directors trying to signpost Shakespeare’s relevance today, but Mr. Tresnjak’s version, evoking the bottom-line-obsessed world of today’s Wall Street, resonates more deeply than most in suggesting how the calculations of profit and loss are integral to even the most intimate human relationships. With the businessmen of Venice attired in sleek dark suits and sporting the latest in high-tech gadgetry, Mr. Tresnjak’s nuanced interpretation also points toward the casual, collective prejudice — whether it is anti-Semitism, misogyny or homophobia — that still germinates among all-male societies today.
Most impressive, however, are the fully realized performances in literally all of the play’s roles. Mr. Tresnjak and his superb cast allow us to see with unusual clarity the light and the dark in Shakespeare’s characters, not just the wronged but vengeful Shylock and his nemesis, the casually bigoted Antonio (Tom Nelis), but also the wise, loving Portia (Kate MacCluggage), who sees fit to test her husband’s love with unnecessary calculation, and comparatively insignificant players like the servant Launcelot Gobbo (a spirited, funny Jacob Ming-Trent).
Shakespeare’s profound understanding of human complexity is rendered with such care that we register sharply how both cruelty and compassion, ignorance and intelligence, mercy and injustice reside not just in any human heart, but also in every human heart. A late-coming speech we often only half-hear, a celebration of the music of the spheres from the minor character Lorenzo (Vince Nappo), makes a powerful impression, encapsulating the lamentable truth the production illuminates.
Gazing up at the stars, he muses, “Such harmony is in immortal souls,/But whilst this muddy vesture of decay/Doth grossly enclose it, we cannot hear it.” Disharmony is the condition of fallen humanity, and even the noblest and most loving hearts are deeply flawed.
Mr. Abraham’s Shylock is probably the finest I’ve seen, although the British actor Henry Goodman was terrific in a National Theater production in London some years ago. It would be coy to avoid any comparisons with Al Pacino’s exciting, savage-spirited performance for the Public Theater production in Central Park and, later, Broadway. Both Mr. Abraham and Mr. Pacino are first-rate actors, I need hardly say, but Mr. Abraham is the more rigorous classicist, phrasing the language with an attentive care for rhythm and clarity.
Mr. Pacino brought intense fire and a revelatory anger to Shylock’s most famous speech (“If you prick us, do we not bleed?”). Mr. Abraham delivers it with a complicated mixture of bitterness and implacable logic. As a man who must negotiate the decorous halls of the contemporary business world, Mr. Abraham’s Shylock keeps a tighter lid on his rage, and on his humiliation, too. In flashing asides we see how the treatment he has received has stoked a fierce hatred in his heart, but on the surface he struggles to maintain a steady cool, even when he is being taunted and beaten.
Mr. Abraham’s Shylock is also piercingly moving when he gives way to a desperate grief at the loss of his daughter (and, yes, the ducats on which his pride as a successful businessman in an antipathetic world rests). Speaking to Tubal of the ring he cherished as a remembrance of his wife, he breaks down in tears, and Mr. Abraham makes us feel acutely how his suffering and his thirst for revenge are tragically, inextricably linked.
As Portia, Ms. MacCluggage radiates a forthright intelligence inflected with both humor and, when she has declared her love for Bassanio (Lucas Hall), a glowing warmth. Mr. Hall’s Bassanio is touching in the sincerity and simplicity of his ardor, and in his deep filial feeling for Antonio, as well. (I think the impulsive kiss in the trial scene is a mistake, however; hints of homosexuality don’t violate the word of the text, but is such literalism necessary?)
Mr. Nelis’s Antonio bears himself with an upright stoicism, and his affection for Bassanio is written in gentle but true colors. We see, too, the reflexive prejudice that has him unthinkingly take out his handkerchief to wipe his hand after shaking Shylock’s. And yet it is of course Antonio, rather more than the unflinching Portia (in disguise), who grants Shylock at least a little of the mercy she so eloquently invokes in the trial scene.
The smaller roles are filled equally well: Ted Schneider is a frat-boyishly funny Gratiano, Christen Simon Marabate a poised Nerissa. Melissa Miller and Mr. Nappo are unusually vivid as Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, and her beloved Lorenzo, their uneasy relations clearly haunted by the shadow of the prevalent prejudice against Jews and by her guilt at having abandoned her father.
Love in Shakespeare’s plays is rarely a simple matter, but it is almost always presented as an example of humanity’s noblest impulses, the best of what man can become. Blissful unions conclude most of the great comedies.
“The Merchant of Venice,” which is technically classified as a comedy, is no exception. But in this troubling play the love matches bring grief in their wake, just as the pursuit of justice — ostensibly a righteous mission — also proves an act of inhuman cruelty. Without piling on the atmospheric gloom, as Daniel Sullivan’s Broadway production sometimes did, Mr. Tresnjak’s first-rate interpretation makes these complications get under your skin in a way they rarely do. You are left with the disheartening thought that it is possible to do right and wrong at the same time.
Read the article with photos on the New York Times web site here.