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A CurtainUp Review
The Merchant of Venice

The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction..— Shylock
In foreground, from left, Richard Clothier (Shylock), Bob Barrett (Antonio)
(Photo: Richard Termine)
Aside from the indestructible richness of the language, Shakespeare's plays also owe much of their continued popularity to their adaptability to new interpretations. With revivals mounted all over the world each year, it's become the director's challenge to make the Bard's plays a template for their own vision for making them relevant to modern audiences.

For Shakespeare enthusiasts, yours truly included, these newly envisioned productions make seeing the by now familiar texts worth seeing a second or third and even fourth time. Naturally, some of these re-interpretations are so high concept that audiences reaction is divided between " brilliant" and "interesting but not my coup-de-theater experience."

The Propeller company's viscerally staged Rose Rage which conflated Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II (review) was definitely a "brilliant" for me. I found its slaughterhouse setting a fitting metaphor for the bloody horror of war and the presentation overall as lively as it was memorable. The company's approach to the always problematic The Merchant of Venice is more a case of " interesting but. . ."

As with Rose Rage, Edward Hall has placed his all-male cast into a decidedly unusual setting, instead of a slaughter house he and designer Michael Pavelka have turned Shakespeare's Venice into a three-story jailhouse. The cells, occupied by a grungy-looking lot, open onto a central space which serves as a prison exercise yard where the various factions brawl and make their mercenary deals, as well as the Belmont scenes where the famous casket scene will determine who will win Portia's hand and the courtroom scene that undoes Shylock's pound of flesh revenge scene.

The roll out cells. . . grungy looking but physically energetic prisoners (both the Jews and the Christians who outnumber them wear gray uniforms). . . a harsh bell to ring in each scene, and cutlery and dishes used to create a cacophony of music. . . it all makes for an attention-getting, propulsive production. However, while the prison setting works in the sense that it can be construed to symbolizes that all these characters are prisoners of their weaknesses and prejudices, this metaphorical conceit brings a whole new set of problems to this problem play, not the least of which is a loss of clarity for anyone not familiar with it.

Those who are familiar with the play —via the text, a movie versions (the most recent, starring Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons that was as eye-poppingly gorgeous as the current production is grim and gray), or on stage (its last Broadway outing starred Dustin Hoffman)— are likely to be divided about whether this all works for them. While I wasn't put off enough by this aggressive rethinking of Venice as a vast prison to walk out at the intermission (as a number of people at Sunday's matinee did), I found that the director's ideas got in the way of any emotional connection to the characters. The all male casting is actually more old than new, since this was the custom in Shakespeare's day. However, I found the high heels, tights and corset-like camisoles used as the only concessions to the actors' female roles, another too distracting director's concept. The downside of this handling of the female roles was most evident in Jon Trenchant's falsetto-voiced Jessica (Shylock's faith abandoning daughter). It worked best for Kelsey Brookfield's quite excellent Portia.

One of the other major problems was with Richard Clothier's Shylock. This is less because he seems almost a minor character and one who's been unashamedly made into a completely unsympathetic character, but because this actor, who was superb in several Rose Rage roles, is here often inaudible. The lively young cast has other offenders on this count i, with shouting too often substituted for clearly delivered lines. One of the best portrayals with the clearest line delivery comes from Bob Barrett as an Antonio (his sexual persuasion less hidden than it often is).

I have no quarrels with Hall's taking the "Who is a Christian? Who is a Jew?quot; question away from Portia and using it to open and end the play. It's an effective bookend for a play that will always have director looking for yet a better way to deal with Shylock, the forerunner of the money lenders and spenders whose recent borrowing bargains have drawn blood from the entire global economy.

Some other Merchant of Venice productions review at Curtainup:
Outdoors in the Berkshires
At London's Old Glone
href="merchantofvenicepearl.html">At the Pearl Theater
\ For links to all our Shakespeare reviews and quotes, go here

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
Directed by Edward Hall
Cast: Bob Barrett (Antonio), Sam Swainsbury (Salerio), Jack Tarlton (Bassanio), Richard Frame (Gratiano), Richard Dempsey (Lorenzo), Kelsey Brookfield (Portia), Chris Myles (Nerissa), Richard Clothier (Shylock), Jonathan Livingstone (Morocco), Thomas Padden (Tubal/Aragon), John Dougall (Lancelot Gobbo), Jon Trenchard (Jessica), Babou Ceesay (Duke of Venice) and David Newman (Monsieur le Bon/Preacher)--Other parts played by the company.
Sets by Michael Pavelka
Lighting by Ben Ormerod
Music by Propeller, additional music and arrangements by Jon Trenchard
Stage manager, R. Michael Blanco
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, including one ikntermission
From 5/06/09; closing 5/17/09
A Watermill Theater (UK) and Propeller productionatthe Brooklyn Academy of Music Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Fort Greene; (718) 636-4100.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at May 10th matinee
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