Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Merchant of Venice tour

I'm not proud of it, but I don't know much about Shakespeare. (Hey, I wasn’t an English or theater major!) I know, I should probably be barred from the theater until I do my homework, right? Or, I could just go to more amazing productions like Theatre for a New Audience's tour of The Merchant of Venice and get schooled.

All the ads focus on Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham in a smart suit (see above)--and he is, unsurprisingly, excellent--but the star of this show is director Darko Tresnjak. By which I mean I loved everything about this show: the sleek set, the slick costuming, every single actor, and the use of the original language in a contemporary setting in a way that actually works. Tresnjak seems to direct many Shakespearean works. I don’t know if they’re all in this half-modern style, but if they were I would watch them all.

I find it difficult to follow Shakespeare live. The language is unfamiliar to me, so when it's spoken too quickly and in a pompous, stagy way, I get lost (even though it's generally easier to understand it on the stage than on the page). This production solves that problem entirely, though. Even when I missed a line or two because it was too quiet or too fast (or I was distracted by a terrible audience member), the superb acting got me right back on track.

What I find the most delightful, though, is that the actors look (in gestures and general movement) and sound (in cadence, inflection, and speech mannerisms) as though they're performing a modern play. There's nothing stuffy about their delivery at all because they clearly understand how every line they're saying would be translated in modern language. And they act and give line readings according to that modern dialogue while actually speaking the original words. It's thrilling to watch.

Scholars the world over study Shakespeare, so I won't weigh in on the various debates regarding anti-Semitism in Merchant. I will just say that as a viewer new to this play, I find the whole cross-dressing bit with the wives fairly weird. In fact, I find the mix of humor and drama odd. I'm a fan of black comedy, but usually the twisted comedy derives from the drama itself, and here it's more like a parallel story that doesn't quite mesh. Also, the play gets surprisingly gay there at the end (perhaps without enough of a lead-up?), complete with a full on-mouth kiss. I don't know if it's just this production, but I couldn't tell if Antonio and Bassanio are supposed to be good mates or soul mates in the original play or in this production.

The setup about the husbands stupidly giving away the rings from their wives (to their wives in drag) seems to be the only part that straddles the drama/comedy line and brings the various storylines together. Portia certainly seems justified in her worry that she comes second in Bassanio's heart. She cares enough to save him from losing his friend, which would likely break him, even though saving him means having to share her husband's love with another. (Because she actually loves him or because he was the best of the bunch of potential spouses?) I'm disappointed for Portia that she only has a portion of her husband's heart, and also sad for Antonio that he has to be grateful for Portia saving his life while being envious that she has married his true love. Am I alone in wishing this storyline had been developed a bit more? (Am I also alone in wondering what exactly Antonio did to secure Bassanio's devotion? He comes across as a feckless asshat to me.)

So, now that I've made it clear how little I know or understand about the Bard, I hope you will still take me seriously when I say that you should go see this show if you get a chance. It's at the Cutler Majestic in Boston through April 10. The $25 seats in the rear mezzanine have a good view. (If you see it, please come back and explain it all to me!)

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