There are those who think that Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice should never be done. To “deal” with this sentiment many productions change the slant of the production. The most famous and egregious of these was Ellis Rabb’s production at Lincoln Center where everyone but Shylock was totally corrupt and debased. Bassanio and Antonio had a gay relationship, Portia cheated and let Bassanio know which casque to choose, and everyone hated the Jews.
Most productions that set themselves in a modern setting, like the current production at the Broad Stage starring F. Murray Abraham, end up being set post-Holocaust and thus must deal with that reality, even indirectly. The problem with these interpretations is that by making the story heavily anti-Semitic, it ends up being presented as an anti-Christian play which is not what Shakespeare had in mind.
All the symbolism points to the play as celebrating the Christian virtue of mercy. Portia lives on Belle-Monde (Beautiful World) and she has a father in Heaven who directs her choices. Her job in the play is to introduce the concept of mercy into this highly prejudiced world (both Jew and Christian). The latter part of the play deals with keeping your commitment to this Christ-like figure.
So what about the production currently on display at the Broad? First let me say that it is first-rate in all aspects. The cast is exceptional, the set simple but effective, and the direction by Darko Tresnjak is detailed and makes total sense. Tresnjak does slant the play however several ways: there is a strong hint of a homosexual relationship between Antonio and Bassanio, or at least Antonio is besotted with Bassanio.
Second, Shylock is treated as badly as possible, spit on, jeered at by the crowd, not just by Gratiano as dictated by the text. Shylock is pushed down in the street and is shown as a religious Jew at home (reciting prayers) and as treating his daughter lovingly. But Portia doesn’t cheat but is played pretty much as written. In fact the way she plays the last scene where she confronts Bassanio about giving away her ring (plus having seen him kissing Antonio full on the lips), she plays that he must earn her trust. I liked that. Kate MacCluggage is a wonderful Portia.
F. Murray Abraham is one of the best Shylocks I have seen. Given the interpretation, he is detailed and powerful in his choices. Jonathan Epstein plays Antonio and is every bit a Match for Abraham. Rounding out the cast are Christen Simon Marabate as Nerissa, Melissa Miller as Jessica, Vince Nappo as Lorenzo, Graham Hamilton as Bassonio, Andrew Dahl as a very funny servant to Portia, and Jacob Ming-Trent as Launcelot Gobbo. The Merchant of Venice will play at the Broad Stage until April 24.