Merchant of Venice at the Broad Stage Review - Powerful as Today's News

F. Murray Abraham is Shylock, the moneylender

(Santa Monica, CA - April 14, 2011)

Georja: Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice at the Broad Stage, presented by Theatre for a New Audience, is an important, engaging, delightful, humorous, thought-provoking and fresh production of one of Shakespeare’s most meaningful plays. Ostensibly it is about anti-Semitism and thematically encompasses the hatred of outsiders, the balance between mercy and justice, religious hypocrisy, revenge and more. This production is set in our digital age in the not too distant future. Jeffrey Horowitz (artistic director and founder of Theatre for a New Audience) explained at the preview panel discussion that from the very beginning, even in the Elizabethan era, Merchant was meant to be played in modern time. The addition of cell phones and computers, along with visual motifs about stocks and trading, have helped illuminate meanings in the words and brought them into present time and relevance, as well as helped to move the plot briskly in internet expedient time under the skillful direction of Darko Tresnjak. An immigrant from Yugoslavia, he has lived through some of the tough times of being an outsider and brings this experience to his understanding of the play. 

Portia (Kate MacCluggage) is aided by her waiting-woman Nerissa (Christen Simon Marabate)

Gerald: At the preview panel discussion, it was mentioned that some scholars think Shakespeare's family was Catholic. During this time in Anglican England, they were persecuted as much as Jews, and homosexuality was punishable by death. Shakespeare seems to be dealing with all kinds of persecution in this play, including the rights of women, and it all seems very contemporary.

L to R: Antonio (Jonathan Epstein) confers with Bassanio (Graham Hamilton) and Shylock

Georja: F. Murray Abraham as Shylock portrays a deeply religious character who is scorned by society and is successful despite being spit upon. He is proud and strong, but just how much can one person take is the question after he is abandoned by his precious only daughter Jessica (Melissa Miller) who not only steals his treasures, but also rejects his religion and marries a Christian. Shylock’s despised nemesis, Antonio (Jonathan Epstein) is suddenly unable to repay a huge loan, and this puts Shylock in a position to demand the vengeful “pound of flesh” stipulated in the bond. It’s not about the money. It’s about Shylock’s right to have justice in a world where he is considered less than human. Abraham's performance is riveting and his plaintive cry when he is finally stripped of his beloved Judaism is piercing and will stay in my heart and memory for a long time.

The Prince of Morocco (Raphael Nash Thompson) seeks Portia's hand in marriage

Gerald: Abraham told the preview audience he was raised in a Texas border town, and he speaks fluent Spanish. This consummate Shakespearean actor claims he never had classical training in Shakespearean stage technique. But his enactment of Shakesperean language and of Shylock the wounded and misunderstood man and father is incredibly moving and wonderfully accomplished.

Georja: Portia (Kate MacCluggage) is strong, brilliant, gorgeous, funny and a joy to watch. Even though she is under the rule of her dead father’s wishes, she manages to outsmart and see through every situation. As a tragicomedy, the play has an abundance of comedic moments, innuendoes and laughs of all kinds from silly to satiric, and our beautiful Portia leads the way with her skillful mocking of suitors to her brilliance when disguised as a male lawyer (indeed the only kind in her day), and her outwitting of her lover Bassanio (Graham Hamilton). She delivers the famous “quality of mercy” speech flawlessly, then shows how unmerciful she can be when the tables are turned. She epitomizes Shakespeare’s ability to show people and situations from all sides.

Antonio appeals to Portia and Bassanio

Gerald: Jonathan Epstein (Antonio) pointed out to us at the after-party that, in Shakespeare's day, Portia would have been a male actor playing a woman, playing a man in the courtroom scene. The ironies never stop! Then I asked Epstein whether Antonio, the Christian gentleman-merchant, thinks he's a hypocrite. "No," Epstein observed, "I just think he's a man who can believe two conflicting things at the same time" -- not the least of which is his latent homosexuality.

Georja: The strong suggestions in Shakespeare’s writing of Antonio’s homosexual feelings for Bassanio are mirrored delightfully with many gay innuendoes throughout, especially from the droll Andrew Dahl as Balthasar, a servant to Portia. Another funny performance came from Christopher Randolph in his role as the Prince of Aragon, a suitor to Portia. It was the first time I had ever heard Shakespeare’s words pronounced with a thick, lisping Castilian accent. Raphael Nash Thompson was also charming as the Prince of Morocco. Poor Nerissa, Portia’s waiting woman (Christen Simon Marabate) has to put up with Portia’s racist remarks, but she manages to handle it in a delightful worldly wise manner.

Shylock confronts the disguised Portia in court

Gerald: Particularly notable for comic relief was Jacob Ming-Trent's portrayal of Lancelot Gobbo, servant to Shylock. Barrel-chested and with spiked dreadlocks, Ming-Trent draws this hysterical character image in a form we all recognize as the big-man rapper in a zoot suit. And speaking of rap, we were thinking it could be as challenging for a 20-something person who never attended a Shakespeare play to "get" the dialogue as it is for us more mature adults to understand rap lyrics. But in these contemporary portrayals, the actors' emotions carry you along. You'll get the story, even if you don't quite catch every word.

Georja: The women of The Merchant of Venice -- Portia, Nerissa and Jessica -- are all strong, intelligent and rebellious, and they end up marrying the men they choose to (although those men don’t seem to offer their wives same virtuous qualities). So the play not only deals with religious and ethnic prejudice, but also with sexism, racism and homophobia. What more could you ask for in one piece?

Shylock seeks his revenge on Antonio

Gerald: The casting of this production seems perfect, given all the racial and sexual overtones, subtext and comic business. Some of the cast have been on the road with this production, and a few of them, including Epstein, joined only recently for the Broad Stage run.

Georja: Shakespeare lovers will be thrilled, and the uninitiated will fall in love. Go see this production, which is playing only a short time (through April 24) on the beautiful 499-seat Broad Stage in Santa Monica. This is the production’s last stop on its national tour, and then the company returns to its home in New York, where most of the actors also reside. Lucky Brooklyn to be the future home of Theatre for a New Audience, which has become “known for building striking and accessible versions of the classics to contemporary audiences.”

Georja Umano is an actress-comedienne and an animal advocate.

Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the Rollo Hemphill series of comic novels.

Photos by Amy Graves

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

April 14 - 24, 2011

(Tues. through Sat. at 7:30 pm

Sat. and Sun. at 2:00 pm)

Tickets $47 - $175

Free Parking

Theatre for a New Audience Production

The Eli and Edythe Broad Stage

1310 11th St.

Santa Monica, CA 90401

310 434-3200

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