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The Merchant of Venice

I am not a Shakespeare purist. If you want to freely adapt Shakespeare's plays in the interest of emphasizing a point - or even just in good fun - I'm not going to object. But you've got to think it all the way through, otherwise it is nothing more than a gimmick.

Unfortunately, James Rice's adaptation of The Merchant of Venice, currently playing at the Knightsbridge Theatre in Los Angeles, is not well thought out. Rice has chosen to reset Shylock's story in a world of modern organized crime - as a sort of "Shakespeare meets The Sopranos." Rice's theory, according to the director's notes, is that by making all of the other characters somewhat unsavory, moneylender Shylock is not any more villainous than merchant Antonio (whose merchandise apparently involves a good deal of cocaine), and therefore emphasizes the anti-semitism at the root of the treatment of Shylock.

It's certainly a different idea, and one worth exploring. And while it does get touched upon in the interaction between Antonio and Shylock, in other places the adaptation of the play into modern times is incomplete and problematic. For example, there is the issue of Portia's ring, given to her new husband Bassanio. Bassanio gives the ring to the "judge" (Portia in disguise) who saves Antonio, but then must account for the ring's disappearance to Portia. In Rice's adaptation, when Portia takes on the role of the judge, she is not dressed as a man, but as a tough lady lawyer (named "Elle," in an apparent nod to Legally Blonde). Initially, this seems like a good idea - that a woman can be a respected judge emphasizes that, in this world, the only prejudice is based on religion. But changing the gender of the judge is completely forgotten when Portia later confronts Bassanio about the missing ring - both Portia and Bassanio refer to the new owner of the ring as male. It plays as though Rice thought, at the last minute, that it would be good to make the judge a woman, but never had time to think through the implications of that decision for the remainder of the play.

There are numerous other instances in which decisions which look good on the surface are later betrayed by the text of the play. Why give Shylock no beard but retain a line about his beard? Why cast the play colorblind but retain Portia's disparaging comments about her black Moroccan suitor? Why make Portia little more than a bimbo when the play later calls upon her to outthink every man on stage? Every decision that Rice made with the play could be seen as furthering his vision of Merchant and the point he wishes to make with it, but his cause is consistently undermined by problems that arise from his failure to completely reconcile his changes with the parts of Shakespeare's original text he has chosen to retain.

Nor is Rice helped by what can only be a lack of rehearsal. Nearly all of the performers have some level of difficulty with their lines - either dropping them, coming in too early, or pausing awkwardly when moving from modern day text back into Shakespearean meter. And technical problems abound - a pre-show video was audio-only for the first few minutes at the performance reviewed, and a later scene was completely drowned out by a background recording of "The Lady is a Tramp." Perhaps most problematic is that the show inserts a gunshot, but it is handled in such an ambiguous way the audience is not entirely clear on who shot whom, and whether anyone was killed. It is clearly an important addition to the show, but it demands clarity.

There is some good stuff in here. When modern day language works its way into the script, it sometimes has the effect of immediately defining a character to comic effect. Gratiano's opening line of, "Hey, can I get a beer out here!" certainly shares meaning with Shakespeare's "And let my liver rather heat with wine," but it gets the point across just a little faster. Portia's second suitor, the self-centered prince of Aragon, is perfectly summed up by his yammering on a cell phone, from which he is reluctantly pulled away to attempt to win Portia. On a more serious note, Shylock's "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech is interrupted by a call of "Motherfucker!" in a way that is oddly affecting.

Rice's idea of focussing on the anti-semitism in Merchant and doing this by freely adapting the play into a modern gangland setting is a reasonable one, but it is simply not fully executed in his current production.

The Merchant of Venice plays at the Knightsbridge Theatre in Los Angeles Fridays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at noon, through October 19, 2003. For reservations and information, call (626) 440-0821. www.knightsbridgetheatre.com.

Knightsbridge Theatre presents The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. Adapted and Directed by Jim Rice. Producer Joseph Stachura; Director of Photography James Thompson; Sound Joe Zawadzki; Light Design Peter Finlayson & Eoin Ryan; Sound Design Di Burbano & Dan Cole; Editing Rob Grindlinger; Locations James Rice.

Cast:
Shylock - Peter Finlayson
Antonio - Eoin Ryan
Portia - Vemi
Jessica - Elena St. John
Tubal - Rob Grindlinger
Bassanio - Robert Straley
Nerissa - Jennifer Gabbert
Gratiano - Geoffrey Hillback
Salarino - Bradley Upton
Salanio - Roman Varshavsky
Salerio - Gil SaVelev
Leonardo - Christian Lena
Morocco/Aragon - Jamil Chokachi
Lorenzo - Matt Clifford
Launcelot - Dennis Baker
Duke - Kurt Engstrom
Stephanie - Kelly Beasley
Barbara "Babs" - Jayma Mays
Angie - Angela Malhotra
Gobbo - Lynne Drabkowski


Be sure to check the current schedule for theatre in the Los Angeles


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Sharon Perlmutter




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