Monday, April 4, 2011


I just saw THE MERCHANT OF VENICE starring F.Murray Abraham and it was remarkable for one reason. It's not that this is a gleaming "Theatre for a New Audience" production directed by Darko Tresnjak with a cast decked out in dark suits and cocktail dresses, clutching their cell phones while syncopating Shakespeare's iambic pentameter. The set is cool-- broad striations of metallic white light on huge back panels with the stage framed by metal scaffolding. The contemporary context was arresting while shedding no "new millenium" light on the text.

And it's not that F. Murray Abraham's Shylock isn't fully imagined or believeable, or that his performance is anything less than intelligent and even accomplished. As the Jew who lends a desperate Christian a loan secured with a pound of flesh, Abraham is confident, almost cocky in his delivery, racing through the "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech faster than a Hasid on a Harley; he's also sometimes inaudible. "The villainy you teach me I will execute" he spits out; even though the line may indicate Shakespeare's true sentiment about who's ultimately at fault here, it's a fiercely unsympathetic portrayal.

No. It's just that we forget everyone else onstage as soon as Portia makes her entrance in the dazzling person of one Kate MacCluggage. Her gorgeous physicality - a tall strawberry blonde with high cheekbones and svelte but muscular carriage, plus a voice full of music and authority- results in a Portia who is passionate and cerebral, clear-eyed and humane. The woman fills up the stage; her climactic and mesmerizing "quality of mercy" speech brings it all together, and the whole package is quite simply, breathtaking. Where has she been all our lives?

So see THE MERCHANT OF VENICE on the Paramount mainstage as part of the Arts Emerson inaugural season through April 10!

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