Modern "Merchant" Misses the Point
Theater for a New Audience’s production of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” ran at the Michael Schimmel Center For the Arts at Pace University from February 27–March 13. The play features a world fraught with iPhones, talking flat screens and the mechanized pelvic thrusts of men in suits. But it is this production's dependence on its modernization of Shakespeare’s work that truly defines the performance.
Formerly the director of The Old Globe Theater in San Diego, Director Darko Tresnjak made a daring statement when he opened his production of “The Merchant of Venice” just weeks after Al Pacino’s Shylock last took to the stage on Broadway.
The most obvious distinction between these two versions are the time periods they are set in: Pacino’s Shylock exists in Renaissance Venice; Abraham’s Shylock in a modern financial district. While the modernization of Shakespeare’s work is a conventional directorial choice, Tresnjak’s production becomes so preoccupied with making the text accessible that it oversimplifies the anti-Semitism that the original work both deals in and deals with.
“The Merchant of Venice” was known in its time as a comedy. But recent readings of the play attempt to defend Shylock from the intolerance that governs the justice system of the world around him. Because this play can adapt itself to both tragedy and comedy it can be performed time and time again.
Abraham’s performance as Shylock was widely anticipated, as the production opened on the heels of Pacino’s momentous run as Shylock. As an actor, Abraham’s technique is well crafted, his ability is clear. But Abraham’s espresso-drinking, Bluetooth-wearing Shylock does not escape the curse of this production's modernization of the text.
This is most clear during the climactic court scene in the fifth act. After his daughter runs away to marry a Christian, Shylock enters a courtroom to collect the pound of flesh he is owed from Antonio as per his bond. Instead of Shylock receiving what he deserves, Portia, Bassanio’s beau, appears disguised as a judge and perverts the language of their bond to save her fiancé’s best friend, Antonio. Portia’s twist of words robs Shylock of his home, possessions and ability to practice his faith freely.
In the midst of losing everything, Abraham’s Shylock places more emphasis on insulting and mocking the characters around him than on the pain of his own breakdown. And when Abraham finally attends to Shylock’s grief, it is through irritatingly inauthentic wailing and sobs.
Abraham’s dramatic wails as he exits the courtroom are seen from another time. They are striking in their extravagance, in their performative loudness. His sobbing is a strange interruption from the pop-contemporary world Tresjnak has created; an interruption that causes one to meditate on Abraham’s acting technique rather then on Shylock’s symbolic death.
The emphasis on modernity that Tresjnak’s overall vision creates allows us to cease our marveling at the multiplicity available in Shakespeare’s work. It allows us to cease our astonishment at the work’s ability to defy the sentiment of its time.
When the play is converted into our time it is easy to forget that Tresjnak’s reading deals with otherness subversively. To resituate this play in our time is a regrettable move on Tresjnak’s part. It is a move that robs history, the play, and its playwright of its substance.
*Theater for a New Audience offers students tickets to their entire season for $10.