Theater Reviews

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Theatre for a New Audience, New York
Through March 11


Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham has the stage roles of a lifetime. On alternate nights, he is playing the malicious title character in Christopher Marlowe's "The Jew of Malta" and the Jewish usurer Shylock in William Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice," in repertory for Off-Broadway's Theatre for a New Audience.

But where Abraham's ("Amadeus") performance in "Malta" is inventive and vital, his turn as Shylock is strained, largely because the production itself is so strained, dry and unstimulating.

As staged by Darko Tresnjak, artistic director of the Old Globe Shakespeare Festival in San Diego, this "Merchant" takes place in a Venice that resembles a stock exchange. Upstage, high on a brushed steel wall, three wide screens display streaming stock data. In their gray suits, friends of the merchant Antonio (the excellent Tom Nelis) gossip while placing trades. And everyone, including Shylock, has a camera phone.

How can Shylock lament his daughter's marriage to a Christian while talking into a cell? Answer: he really can't. And it's painful to watch Abraham -- one of the few in the production who can use Shakespeare's verse to convey meaning and emotion -- grapple with this interfering prop.

But it's not just cell phones that damage this "Merchant," or the laptops used by Portia's suitors to select the casket containing her portrait. It's that the contemporary environment turns most of the performances into muddles of naturalistic conversation, and that director Tresnjak seems more interested in contemporary touches than in the characters, relationships and words that Shakespeare wrote. Venice as 21st century stock exchange is a perfectly fine idea. But if Shakespeare vanishes along the way, what's the point?

Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in the production's strongest scene, when Portia (Kate Forbes), who has shed her dress and five-inch heels for the gray suit of a young male lawyer, metes out justice to Shylock, who wants Antonio's pound of flesh.

Forbes' Portia is scared but determined, controlled but passionate. Antonio trembles in his chair, and Abraham's Shylock tastes the excitement of victory until the last, awful moments, when the Christians humiliate him. Onstage, the tension and the fear are palpable as the actors simply play this intensely theatrical scene. There is little attempt to juice up the action with intrusive contemporary touches, there is no electronic paraphernalia -- and nobody misses it.

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
Theatre for a New Audience at the Duke on 42nd Street
Credits:
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Darko Tresnjak
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: Linda Cho
Lighting designer: David Weiner
Sound designer: Jane Shaw
Video artist: Matthew Myhrum
Cast:
Shylock: F. Murray Abraham
Launcelot Gobbo: Kenajuan Bentley
Balthazar: Arnie Burton
Solanio: Cameron Folmar
Portia: Kate Forbes
The Prince of Morocco: Ezra Knight
Gratiano: John Lavelle
Jessica: Nicole Lowrance
Lorenzo: Vince Nappo
Antonio: Tom Nelis
Bassanio: Saxon Palmer
Salerio: Matthew Schneck
Nerissa: Christen Simon
The Prince of Arragon, Tubal, Duke of Venice: Marc Vietor
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