EmptyTheatre for a New Audience, New York
Through March 10
This is not your great-grandmother's "The Jew of Malta," but it certainly is fun. In a clever production headed by Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham ("Amadeus") and expertly directed by David Herskovits, Christopher Marlowe's classic drama is more farce than revenge tragedy. Purists might carp, but the rest of us will simply enjoy Theatre for a New Audience's comic interpretation.
Written around 1590, "Jew of Malta" is a tale of thievery, religious hypocrisy and murder. Its central figure, the wealthy Jewish usurer Barabas (Abraham), is essentially robbed by Malta's governor (Marc Vietor) to pay off Turks who threaten the island. Out of that incident flows a chain of revenge that ends with Barabas dying in a fiery cauldron. Along the way he poisons his loyal daughter, Abigail (Nicole Lowrance), and with help from a conniving and lascivious slave named Ithamore (Arnie Burton) arranges the deaths of the governor's son (John Lavelle), Abigail's beloved suitor (Vince Nappo), several nuns and two venal friars (Cameron Folmar, Ezra Knight).
Herskovits, assisted by a fine cast and superb designers, trains a humorously cynical eye on these events, as, quite possibly, Marlowe secretly did, too. Abraham's Jew of Malta, costumed by David Zinn in Mephistophelean black velvet and gold, at times displays the dignity of an Elizabethan hero; at other times, he cringes humorously in a parody of a fawning Jew. Occasionally he merrily sings and dances a few bars of "Hava Nagila." Abraham is both in the character and outside it -- adeptly playing, relishing and criticizing the Christians' negative Jewish stereotype.
Indeed, the allure of the production is that Herskovits seamlessly blends darkness and light, death and humor, classic and contemporary. Abigail is both an obedient Elizabethan daughter and an independent 21st century woman; Ithamore is a scurrilous liar right out of Roman comedy and a drunken, bare-assed lover. John Lee Beatty's ingenious set -- flats depicting a street in Malta -- looks as though a child might have painted the slightly askew doors and windows, while panels in the upper stories are photographs of a street scene. Who would have thought that an American folk song, "Pharoah's Army Got Drowned," would fit with Christopher Marlowe? Herskovits, and he is right.
Toward the end of this 2 1/2-hour jaunt, the pace flags a bit. At that point, Herskovits might have done better to abandon humor for the seriousness that ultimately underlies the text. But all in all, this mingling of Marlowe and Harlequin makes for a delightful time in the theater.
THE JEW OF MALTA
Presented by Theatre for a New Audience at the Duke on 42nd Street
Playwright: Christopher Marlowe
Director: David Herskovits
Dramaturg: Michael Feingold
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: David Zinn
Lighting designer: David Weiner
Sound designer: Jane Shaw
Barabas: F. Murray Abraham
Ithamore: Arnie Burton
Friar Barnadine: Cameron Folmar
Bellamira: Kate Forbes
Selim Calymath/Friar Jacomo: Ezra Knight
Lodowick: John Lavelle
Abigail: Nicole Lowrance
Mathias: Vince Nappo
Martin del Bosco: Tom Nelis
Pilia-Borza: Saxon Palmer
Callapine: Matthew Schneck
Katherine: Christen Simon
Ferneze: Marc Vietor