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Chicago by John Olson

The Merchant of Venice
Bank of America Theatre

Also see John's review of God of Carnage

The Merchant of Venice
Kate McCluggage and F. Murray Abraham
In the first half of the last century, it was still common for the great actors of the day to tour in productions of the classics, bringing Shakespeare to the provinces' largest and grandest theaters, like Chicago's Bank of America Theatre (born in 1906 as the Majestic). Though Shakespeare is still well-represented on local non-profit stages, the historic landmark theaters housing national tours these days will bring us the witches of Wicked more often than the witches of Macbeth. But being in this majestic palace for the Theatre for a New Audience's tour of The Merchant of Venice, which first opened in New York Off-Broadway in 2007 and stars F. Murray Abraham, recreates the tradition and sense of event that regional audiences must have felt when seeing Barrymore (or going farther back, Booth), play Hamlet.

While the idea of a big touring production of Shakespeare starring an internationally known actor may be a more 19th or 20th century notion, Tresnjak's modern dress staging of The Merchant of Venice makes the tragic-comedy's relevance to the present day abundantly clear. Its characters are obsessed with wealth and appearances. The young man Bassanio (played warmly by Lucas Hall) is of high social standing, but he has squandered his estate and must borrow money to woo the wealthy heiress Portia. His older friend Antonio (Tom Nelis), the titular "merchant" who is a successful but cash-poor importer, gets a loan from the money-lender Shylock to enable Bassanio to travel to Portia's home and compete among wealthier rivals for her hand. Appearances are everything—and in Linda Cho's costumes the men are in tailored suits and the women smartly dressed as well. John Lee Beatty's bi-level set has a system of burnished metal panels and catwalk, and sports the sleek clean design of an Apple store. Apple MacBook laptops are used to represent the three caskets from which Portia's suitors must choose—a test devised by her father before his death—and the casket's contents are projected above the laptops on high definition monitors.

An obsession with the pursuit of wealth is everywhere. The iconic Shylock amasses it through the charging of usurious interest rates, and Antonio risks all his capital on a single voyage to import goods. Bassanio's friends are suggested to be modern-day stock brokers or traders, with price tickers projected above them on monitors. Everyone is rushing to make money and frequently talking to each other by cell phone so as to not lose any time in the process. Tresnjak might be faulted for having too much fun with this visual updating—it does seem a bit full of itself at times in its abundant use of cell phone features and techno music accompaniment. Regardless, he makes the contemporary relevance of Shakespeare's 16th-century play unmistakable.

Equally clearly communicated, but more provocative, are Shakespeare's portrayal of anti-Semitism and his meditation of the limitations of law in pursuit of justice. Abraham delivers the complexities of Shylock in a highly nuanced performance, showing the Jewish moneylender to be deeply embittered and socially isolated from the bigotry he's experienced from Christians, most notably Antonio. While Shylock is ultimately reprehensible in insisting that Antonio deliver his bond of a literal pound of flesh when Antonio is unable to repay his loan for Bassanio in the agreed-upon time frame, Abraham shows that Shylock's actions are derived from resentment at the very real harms he has endured due to religious bigotry. His delivery of Shylock's famous speech ("Hath not a Jew eyes?") decrying the prejudice forces us to consider Shylock's perspective and pity rather than despise him for it.

Abraham makes the most of his big scenes, but never at the expense of the fine supporting cast, which boasts an exceptional Portia in Kate McCluggage. Smart, sexy and strong, she commands the stage with Portia's speech at Antonio's trial about the nature of mercy. Her character is really the center of this play—more than its merchant Antonio or its iconic Shylock. Her search for a husband starts the action in motion and her ingenuity resolves the final conflicts. McCluggage's Portia has the stuff to convince us she's capable of all that. Another standout is Jacob Ming-Trent in the comic role of servant Launcelot Gobbo. African-American Ming-Trent masterfully merges a hip-hop sensibility with Shakespeare's language for a truthful updating of the character. Nelis has some trouble melding Antonio's loyal and sympathetic side with his cruel anti-Semitism into a single coherent character. Some scholars contend that Antonio becomes more accepting of Judaism after ultimately prevailing over Shylock, but that sort of transformation was not visible in Nelis' performance.

Shakespeare's ambiguity toward anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice—the Christians win out in the end, after all—is disturbing. Audiences can instead focus on his appeal to human compassion and mercy over laws and agreements that are intended to ensure justice and fairness but which frequently fail to do so. "To do a great right, do a little wrong," we are instructed. The greatest wordsmith of the English language seems here to acknowledge the limitations of words. In a world seemingly dominated more than ever by financiers and lawyers, Tresnjak's modern dress staging makes the play resonant for contemporary audiences.

The Merchant of Venice will run through March 27, 2011, at the Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St., Chicago. Tickets at all Broadway in Chicago box offices, www.broadwayinchicago.com, all Ticketmaster outlets, or by phone at 312-775-2000.


Photo: Gerry Goodstein

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-- John Olson



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