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Off-Broadway Review

The Merchant of Venice

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The Merchant of Venice
Photo Source: Nobby Clark
Shakespeare's plays have a little something for everyone: action, adventure, bawdy comedy, romance, philosophy. Think of them as the ultimate combo of highbrow-lowbrow entertainment, pioneering the form long before Pulp Fiction or The Dark Night. But modern interpreters struggle to make sense of works whose tone shifts are sudden and capricious. To compensate, directors make us endure unifying concepts more dampening than revealing.

Enter Edward Hall's Propeller, an all-male British company that refuses to be bogged down by concept, be it traditional or self-imposed. Propeller's members have ideas aplenty, but their main gift is to investigate and invigorate text so fully they seem to invent Shakespeare's plays on the spot. Academic debate falls away in the face of love and brutality so pure, as in the near-great production of The Merchant of Venice now playing at Brooklyn Academy of Music.

I say near-great for reasons I'll get into later, but rest assured they do not overwhelm the pleasures of this prison-set love triangle. Yes, this Venice is a prison—designed with claustrophobic bars by Michael Pavelka—where the system of barter and trade reduces goods, oaths, and even love to commodities. (For both ill and good, the whole enterprise is a bit reminiscent of the HBO series Oz.) But the setting also renders the plot-animating collateral more complicated and evenhanded than in most versions.

Here, young Bassanio (Jack Tarlton) lays down his own body to persuade the illiquid entrepreneur Antonio (Bob Barrett) to lay down his life as a surety to the Jew Shylock (Richard Clothier). The Bassanio-Antonio bond—a complicated mix of sexual and filial obligation that seems a lot like love—weighs powerfully once Antonio defaults and Shylock moves to claim his pound of flesh. The courtroom sequence, in which a disguised Portia (Kelsey Brookfield) sits in judgment, now has an electric current of jealousy.

I have seen Propeller's work pay off more thoroughly. When the company last came to these shores—with a revelatory repertory pairing of Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew—its mining of the text somehow located a surprising unity found not on the surface of conceit but deep in the bedrock of human emotion. Merchant's epiphanies remain largely isolated, a result of not integrating the infamous character of Shylock. He's been marginalized, a bit by the production's focus and more so by Clothier's portrayal. It's a puzzling performance, strong and sinister in nonverbal moments, when the actor affects a chilling whinny, yet weak, desperate, and often unintelligible when handling text.

The failure of this performance is magnified when seen against so many marvelously well-rounded and well-spoken turns. Barrett, in his plummy tones, is a touching, tragic Antonio; Tarlton, playing with a Scottish brogue, makes for an uncommonly sympathetic Bassanio. The secondary comic couple, Gratiano (Richard Frame) and Nerissa (Chris Myles), is a picture of wicked merriment. The fine work continues down the line.

But for the best example of what director Hall and Propeller bring, look to Brookfield's Portia. His unfamiliar line readings stop you with that wonderful realization that a line can mean something you've never thought of. And in his familiar line readings, he finds a freshness that stops you for much the same reason.

Presented by Brooklyn Academy of Music
at the BAM Harvey Theatre, 651 Fulton St., Brooklyn, NYC.
May 617. Tue.–Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
(718) 636-4100 or www.bam.org.

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