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The Merchant of Venice

Edward Hall's all-male, prison-set production of Shakespeare's classic play will delight some audiences and alienate some others.

A scene from The Merchant of Venice
(© Richard Termine)
The extremes to which directors go when introducing new perspectives on William Shakespeare's plays often approach the jaw-dropping. Few, however, have gone as far as Edward Hall -- and the all-male Propeller troupe -- has with The Merchant of Venice, now at BAM for a limited run. The production looks like what the inmates on the famed HBO television series Oz might have come up with had they decided to put on the Bard's still-controversial play -- and the result will delight some audiences and totally alienate others.

In Merchant, Jewish moneylender Shylock (Richard Clothier) comes up against crusading Portia (Kelsey Brookfield) over a breach of contract, wherein a pound of flesh is brutally demanded from merchant shipper Antonio (Bob Barrett). Portia gets involved because it's her fiance Bassanio (Jack Tarlton) for whom Antonio -- who has a high regard and maybe a sexual longing for Bassanio -- has borrowed the three thousand ducats. Meanwhile, the beleaguered Shylock is having trouble at home because daughter Jessica (Jon Trenchard) has vacated with her Christian lover and successful proselytizer, Lorenzo (Richard Dempsey).

Hall displays the work on Michael Pavelka's three-story prison-cell set, where actors emerge from behind bars to carry out the highly energetic action. While the director's conceit seems closely modeled on the assumption that incarceration promotes intramural gangs, as well as sexual prowlers, prowess and subjugation, Hall never states explicitly that what's on view is a prison. Ultimately, it's a situation which viewers will accept -- or don't.

Regardless, the physical demands of the players navigating this U-shaped unit have rarely been topped. Surely, no previous treatment has had as many actors doing push-ups or the occasional chin-up, all of which emphasizes the stamina required from the cast of mostly young actors. Even Clothier, wearing a knitted can for a yarmulkah, is no calculatedly obsequious figure; the oft-quoted speech where he asks his list of rhetorical questions ("Hath not a Jew eyes?") is delivered while he abruptly assaults Salerio.

Other directorial tinkerings occur throughout the production. When Bassanio importunes Antonio to borrow the money he needs to woo Portia, he not only caresses good buddy Antonio, but runs his hand through Antonio's short-cropped hair, while Portia greets her unwanted suitors in an outfit that makes her look like Goth dominatrix ready to take on all comers. At one point, a violinist also plays the dolorous Yom Kippur staple, "Kol Nidre."

Among the generally excellent cast, Propeller veterans Barrett and Clothier prove their expertise, although Clothier swallows more words than is helpful. Brookfield's Portia is foxy, Tarlton is wily playing up Bassanio's contradictory traits, and Chris Myles gives a powerhouse performance as Nerissa.

While the Merchant of Venice is never an easy play to absorb, Hall and his dedicated colleagues make a fierce argument for giving it a shot.