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NY Theater Reviews

F. Murray Abraham/ Ph: Gerry Goodstein

MODERN CLASSIC

By MATT WINDMAN

Darko Tresnjak’s captivating production of Merchant, fueled by F. Murray Abraham, is a prime example of the myriad ways one can interpret and present Shakespeare.

Never let it be said that too much Shakespeare is a bad thing. The Bard’s work is so open to interpretation that even the same play can be viewed in completely different ways and adapted to fit new settings and accommodate different points of view.
 
Just two weeks since the Public Theater’s acclaimed production of The Merchant of Venice starring Al Pacino closed on Broadway after a sold-out run, Theatre for a New Audience has revived its 2007 Off-Broadway production of the play with F. Murray Abraham in preparation for a national tour.
 
It is unexpectedly – and unfortunately – appropriate for Merchant to be making a return appearance so quickly. After all, since the Broadway production closed, Charlie Sheen and Dior designer John Galliano have hit the tabloids for allegedly expressing the kind of anti-Semitic attitudes explored in the play.
 
Daniel Sullivan’s Broadway staging, which premiered last summer as a free outdoor Shakespeare in the Park staging, used an Edwardian dress code and a minimalistic set design consisting of revolving, prison-like black iron gates. On the other hand, Darko Tresnjak’s equally captivating modern-dress production is set among contemporary Wall Street traders who wear power suits and bluetooths. The three caskets that Portia’s suitors must choose from have even been replaced with identical white MacBooks.
 
Pacino’s Shylock was wildly theatrical and exaggerated. F. Murray Abraham, wearing a simple gray suit and black yarmulke, which is later removed by force, is far more believable but just as fascinating and deeply felt. His Shylock is deeply wounded by his daughter’s betrayal and merely trying to survive and maintain his dignity in a prejudiced and unfair society.
 
There is also an interesting contrast between Lily Rabe’s fierce and funny Portia and the more assertive performance given by the statuesque Kate McCluggage.
 
Just as Sullivan added a wordless sequence depicting the forced baptism of Shylock, Tresnjak has his own personal stamp – having Bassanio and Antonio impetuously kiss during the courtroom scene, literalizing their latent homosexual relationship. While it is an unnecessary move, it hardly mars this otherwise excellent production.