What happens when you pluck Shakespeare’s Italian players out of the old-world and drop them into the context of rivaling neighborhoods of 1920’s Manhattan? You get the Merchant of New York, err, Venice.
The Merchant of Venice is not an easy choice for the Shakespeare Theatre Company to end its 2010-2011 season. Although the play is frequently staged (Al Pacino starred in the most recent adaptation on Broadway), modern audiences still view the antisemitic themes, prominent in Elizabethan England, problematic. With numerous film and stage adaptations, directors are constantly finding new and innovative ways to reinvent Shakespeare’s text and director Ethan McSweeney did just that by setting the story in the roaring twenties among the spectacle of New York City. It’s as if McSweeny transplanted the players into the world of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan.
In many ways, New York City is the perfect parallel to 14th century Venice. Both saw booming economic growth in a time of social change and ethnic tensions. Besides the fact that the New Yorkers in the play keep talking about far-away Venice, McSweeney has found the key to keep The Merchant of Venice relevant and fresh. While the concept is carried out through Jennifer Moeller’s impeccable costumes, the set doesn’t take full advantage of the stage and crowds the space with a giant staircase that blocks some of the action from the audience.
While the title character refers to the merchant Antonio, the play’s most recognized character is the Jewish moneylender Schylock. Mark Nelson took on the enormous task of portraying one of the most famous characters in Shakespearean canon. Nelson has a lot stacked up against him. Schylock is written as greedy and unforgiving but is supposedly saved after his forced conversion to Christianity. However, Nelson plays the deeply unflattering stereotype of an Orthodox Jew with great thought and intellect. What may have been used as a propaganda character in the past (German Nazis used the character of Shylock in their effort to wage hatred against Jews), Nelson’s delivery evokes great compassion from the audience. I had tears rolling down my face as Nelson delivered the famous “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands…as a Christian is?” (Act III, scene i) monologue with heartbreaking poignancy.
Julia Coffey also delivered a standout performance as Portia, a fair maiden with many suitors pinning for her affection. Coffey takes the brave step of departing from Shakespeare’s text by perfectly embodying a modern woman, riding off the newly gained right to vote. Portia’s suitors, specifically Vaneik Echeverria as the Prince of Aragon and Carl Cofield as the Prince of Morocco, provide much needed humor (this is a part comedy after all) in the most entertaining scenes in the play. The Merchant of Venice is a must-see for DC theatre-goers looking for a stimulating and thought-provoking evening of Shakespeare.
June 21-July 24, 2011
Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays at 7:30 pm
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm
Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm
Wednesday July 20 at 12 pm
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F Street, NW
TICKETS: $20-$98. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 202-547-1122