Abraham meets Shylock

Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is a comedy, right?  No one dies, and at the end three lovely young couples are married or about to be.  Still we were emotionally wrung out when it was over.

We went to see F. Murray Abraham in the role of the Jewish money-lender, Shylock, at the Broad Stage, a small theater in Santa Monica.  We got far more than we bargained for.

This production, directed by Darko Tresnjak, was played in modern dress and in the milieu of the American business world.  On waist-high tables there were three Apple computers, sometimes used for stock quotes or searching the internet.  Characters sometimes spoke to each other on the cellphones.

Injected into this modern ambience was explicit, physical portrayal of the raw anti-Semitism that Shylock complains about in the play.  We’ve seen Anne Frank, we’ve seen Cabaret, but in those stories, the anti-Semitism is institutional.  It is explicit but not personal; the dreadful acts are carried out by members of a mob or of the military or police.  In Merchant, Antonio and his buddies know the Jew they are persecuting– they have done business with him for years.  When one of them knocks off Shylock’s yarmulke and he loses his balance going down on the pavement to rescue it, they laugh as he grovels.  No wonder he hates them.

Antonio needs money, and Shylock lends it to him with a bizarre contract; if Antonio defaults on a particular date, Shylock may take a pound of Antonio’s flesh as a penalty.  This is treated mostly as a joke, but it comes to reality in a trial scene where Shylock claims his “bond” for the defaulted loan.  Like the street business, the trial was also played with far more physical realism than I have seen before.  Antonio was wearing an orange prisoner’s uniform.  Shylock came in and set a scale on the central pedestal, and on one side of the scale he placed one pound of hamburger wrapped in plastic.  He drew out a small, gleaming knife that he held in his hand throughout the scene.  He will have his pound of flesh.

I have always assumed that when Portia comes into court disguised as a young attorney, she knows that she has a winning argument up her sleeve.  I assumed that the trial scene is play-acting on her part, intended to enhance her certain victory.  Not in this production. This time, Portia delivers her “quality of mercy” argument and is surprised when it makes no impression on Shylock– if mercy is such a fine thing, why don’t Christians make more use of it?  No one can imagine that Shylock wants a pound of a man; he points out that some of them own slaves, and if a Christian can own a man, why can he not own a part of a man?

At every argument, Shylock is more vehement, more insistent, more angry and impatient.  At times Portia is at one of the computers, feverishly searching Venetian law for a way out.  She is no longer sure that she will save Antonio, whose upper chest is bared.  Portia is near panic when the bright steel blade is pressed against Antonio’s skin.  Suddenly she sees that blood is about to flow, and her winning argument flashes into her brain: the contract says that Shylock may take flesh, but if he takes blood along with it, he becomes guilty of murder.

Portia wins, but in this production the verdict is in doubt until the decisive moment.  And when the force of the law falls on Shylock for threatening the life of a Venetian citizen, it is doom indeed.  Shylock’s yarmulke is again torn from his head, and he is prevented from picking it up.  His utter humiliation leaves him a sobbing, gasping animal, who drags himself from the stage with indescribable, speechless sounds of grief.

F. Murray Abraham gave us more than we could have imagined, but so did the other actors, expecially Kate McCluggage as Portia Graham Hamilton as Bassanio.  Throughout, Tresnjak’s direction was creative and cogent.  We left with much to think about.

PS:  Abraham is not Jewish, according to the LATimes, but was raised Syrian Orthodox.  He left that church because of its inflexible attitude toward homosexuality.

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