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The Merchant of Venice / The Jew of Malta

Shakespeare tops Marlowe in TFANA's double-bill of plays about anti-Semitism. logo
Nicole Lowrance and F. Murray Abraham
in The Merchant of Venice
(© Gerry Goodstein)
The argument traditionally goes that Elizabethan playwrights were not necessarily anti-Semitic themselves; they were just reflecting the intemperate nature of their times. Judged by the Theatre for a New Audience tandem presentations of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, it's safe to say that the two quill-happy Elizabethans could not be called pro-Semitic by any stretch of the forgiving imagination.

Seeing the plays back-to-back in the TFANA's oblique rumination on today's seeming dramatic rise of global anti-Semitism, it almost seems as if Shakespeare decided he'd appropriate several of Marlowe's plot points in order to state them more fairly. In both works, a rich Jew with a marriageable daughter not opposed to religious conversion is put forth as valuable to the prominent Christians while being resented and reviled by them.

What can also be said in the Bard's favor is that he's far more inclined to see the Jewish side of intolerance's effects than is his hot-headed contemporary. His somewhat sympathetic point is effectively made in Darko Tresnjak's entertaining modern-day treatment of The Merchant of Venice, whereas David Herskovits's Jew of Malta is buffoonishly clunky as it sets out Marlowe's view of Jews being no less scurrilous than they were as depicted in World War II-era German propaganda.

The Merchant of Venice, here dramaturged by Michael Feingold, is often considered a "problem play" for its perspective on the Jewish situation; and its drawbacks aren't solved by Tresnjak and company. Nonetheless, the opus, now set in "the near future," is cleverly done on a chromium-slick John Lee Beatty set featuring Apple computers masquerading as Portia's marriage-contest caskets and actors circulating in business suits. Having supplied the characters with cell phones and digital cameras, Tresnjak finds innumerable ways to make them semiotically define a society that then, as now, allowed commerce to corrupt spirituality.

Although Shakespeare accords the usurer Shylock (F. Murray Abraham) some persuasive arguments as he pursues the bigoted Antonio (Tom Nelis) in his quest to retreive that promised pound of flesh, it's Antonio whom he lets off the hook. This is an Antonio, who, after shaking Shylock's hand, takes out a linen handkerchief and wipes his fingers. And while Portia (Kate Forbes) gets herself up in male drag to emphasize that the quality of mercy should not be strained.. she doesn't seem to notice that her beloved Bassanio (Saxon Palmer) is spineless. Yes, Shakespeare's biases are evident.

The cast plays the piece with a blend of contemporary angst and suavity. Abraham's Shylock is every bit the aging M. B. A. The only thing distinguishing him from his WASP associates are the skull cap and prayer-shawl fringe peeking from under his tailored jacket. Indeed, all the cast members look as if they're moving easily along the fast track, especially Arnie Burton as Portia's facile factotum, Balthazar.

While Tresnjak has a solid grip on his Merchant of Venice, Herskovits is conflicted about how to handle The Jew of Malta. The plot involves Scrooge-like Barabas (F. Murray Abraham), his fortune appropriated, seeking revenge on a number of antagonists, including an entire nunnery which his daughter repentantly enters. His luck holds through murders of the cloistered sisters, two suitors for his daughter's once-greedy hand, and a couple of friars, but eventually he gets his ignominious comeuppance.

Since the drama has none of the narrative subtlety or the plush language of The Merchant of Venice, it seems as if Herskovits, who often employs carnival look in his productions, has decided to throw up his hands and spoof the whole enterprise. He has the company camping relentlessly through most of the proceedings. Moreover, in his essentially period staging, he keeps dispatching stagehands with props for the actors. The first time this occurs, it seems like a mistake being rectified. Subsequently, the young women's blank-faced appearances are an overworked joke.

Herskovits also has the Jewish characters use old-world accents whenever they encounter courtiers. The choice is confusing. Are the Jews meant to be ribbing their auditors? Or is Herskovits saying that when the Jews speak, those hearing them imagine accents as a function of their prejudice?

The production also serves as a clear-cut illustration of the enormous influence a director can wield over actors. The same ensemble that authoritatively runs with The Merchant of Venice looks in The Jew of Malta like a troupe of preening high schoolers. For this half of the dual offering, the players deliver their lines so they sound like first readings. The inadequate speaking doesn't quite extend to Abraham, but even he is unable to bring variety to the bravura wretchedness onstage.

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