By James Foritano
BOSTON-In Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” Venice is a frenetic, even a mad world. It spews up and swallows merchant princes and their hangers-on, gilded heiresses and their pursuers.
In director Darko Tresnjak’s staging, the ornate Cutler Majestic theater turns high-tech. Players of all stripes scurry back and forth, cell-phones to ear, dancing on multiple levels of scaffolding to the tune of getting and (excuse the expression) lending. Three flat screens stream numbers, or, alternately, picture an unquiet ocean where fortunes are afloat.
Serenissima, or the Queen of the Adriatic, might cultivate airs of aristocratic leisure, but she is a world “on the make,” of deals, clasped with a warm handshake — or not. So, Bassanio tells his friend Antonio, who, in case you didn’t know, is the merchant of Venice, that he is, well, somewhat “our of pocket,” but, has hopes, if his pockets fill somewhat fuller, of maybe bagging an heiress lately come on the market.
Well! With his fortunes at hazard in various oceans of the world, Antonio doesn’t hesitate a moment. He even chides his friend for asking his help in a round-a-bout way. For the merchant elite of Venice there’s always a way, where there’s a will — or a Jew who’s willing.
So, with his friend’s generous blessing, Bassanio scrambles off to the Rialto, Venice’s fabled financial center, where, who should he meet, but Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. You expected a Christian? For shame!
Shylock is alternately intrigued and horrified, tempted and repulsed by the proffered deal. He hesitates, but not for long. Though Antonio is “loaded,” his other hobby is baiting, which includes spitting on and kicking, Jews who perform, perforce, the necessary but reviled office of greasing the Venetian money machine.
Yes, Shylock will take Antonio’s bond; yes, Antonio’s friend Bassanio may go to Belmont, the estate of the latest heiress-on-the-market Portia, and put on as good a face as the princes and dukes of the world, as he jingles his Jewish money while angling for a devoutly rich Christian.
And this is the point at which director Tresnjak puts his own spin on the much-spun conundrum of “who is Shylock?” Convincingly, Tresnjak and F. Murray Abraham “play up” Shylock, the Venetian, as much as Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, blurring where one identity begins and the other ends.
Abraham’s Shylock clasps Antonio’s hand in the fated deal with more than a modicum of malice. It’s a hard handclasp and an infamously hard deal, to say the least. But if, in that moment, Antonio is prey to Shylock’s predator; Christian lamb to Jewish wolf, in the next moment, drawing back, measuring each other, they laugh in the way of two gamblers tempting fate, two Venetians united in their spite of Fortune’s bitchy ways.
Venice, if you should miss the point, does tempt strange fellows to share the same restless bed. In Darko Tresnjak’s staging, competitors, from the world’s ends, stand on platforms illuminated like a game show to wage bitter gambles for ultimate wealth and beauty. If they lose Portia by choosing wrongly, they must remain forever celibate, and, in the moment, endure humiliation from flashing lights, gongs, and a pride-wrenching sermon.
Why? Substitute Wall Street for Venice and maybe the motivation becomes clearer. Only a gambler knows for sure.
Antonio’s far-flung ships, do, despite awful rumors, come to port, safely richer; Portia’s foreign suitors return home, consoled by their wealth, their self-love intact. A spate of deserving Venetians marry well — above all, Bassanio and Portia. And the lottery goes on.
Only Shylock is out-witted by a rigged game, his fortune plundered beyond a second chance. And if we suspect he hasn’t learned much but disappointment, well, that too is very Venetian.
(ARTSEmerson presents the The Merchant of Venice at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont Street in Boston through April 10. Call (617) 824-8000.)