New York’s Theatre for a New Audience has brought Chicago a “Merchant of Venice” that is a frustrating but ultimately rewarding mixture of strong, subtle acting and distracting, in-your-face gimmicks.
Though minimalist, the set is visually overpowering: three large, flat screens hanging just above head-height provide do double duty as background imagery and as Portia’s caskets; they also act as tools of the young Wall Street types, Solerio and Solanio, who observe and comment on the main action while furiously trading stocks. Along with a trio of glowing Macbooks and a host of smartphones, these screens give the whole production a futuristic glow.
Unfortunately, as in real life, screens onstage have a tendency to mesmerize and distract. And that is a shame, because the acting going on just below them is superb. F. Murray Abraham brings extraordinary pathos to the role of Shylock, restraining his pain and anger until it bursts out in heart-rending cries. As Portia, Kate MacCluggage also stands out, most notably in the trial scene. Disguised as a young law clerk, she witnesses her new husband’s overpowering love for his old friend; the jealously and dismay she feels are palpable. Equally powerful is her shocked, sorrowful reaction to Shylock’s final sentence, which she herself brought about.
If you can keep your eyes off the screens and on the actors, the production rewards you with many such unexpected, nuanced bits of acting. Shakespeare left “Merchant” full of unanswered questions, particularly about how the central couples feel about each other in the final scene of betrayal, forgiveness, and resolution. Under Darko Tresnjak’s direction, this cast has made strong, intelligent, quietly startling choices. The result highlights the sadness and compromises beneath the comic ending.