It was a few minutes before Theatre for a New Audience’s production of The Merchant of Venice starring F. Murray Abraham and directed by Darko Tresnjak was to start, and the extremely elderly woman seated next to me was looking up at the stage quizzically. Finally she articulated the source of her confusion. “What the heck kind of language is that?” she asked, pointing to one of the three screens onstage that, in Italian, English, and Hebrew, directed audience members to turn off their cell phones. She was pointing to the Hebrew one. Although she had directed her question to the universe in general, I answered her (I’m helpful like that): “It’s Hebrew.” “Oh, I guess that makes sense. With a name like the Schimmel Center,” she replied. “I think actually it’s because the play we’re about to see is about Venice, and also Jews?” I offered, and she grunted noncommittally, and then I decided to stop trying to be helpful.
In preparing to interview the principal female characters in this vexing play, I found an offhand comment that Theatre for a New Audience’s Artistic Director, Jeffrey Horowitz, wrote in an email to me extremely helpful: “Portia thinks she’s a great person, but she’s also a racist.” One of the most confounding and fascinating things about any production of The Merchant of Venice is that the actors must articulate their characters’ bigotry without making them into caricatured villains but also without glorifying their more despicable tendencies.
To see how actors would manage this, I visited rehearsals and spoke afterwards with Kate MacCluggage, who plays Portia, the rich heiress of Belmont, Christen Simon Marabate, Nerissa, Portia’s waiting gentlewomen and Melissa Miller, Jessica, Shylock’s daughter. Each of these Shakespearean ladies will marry during the course of the play.
Kate MacCluggage certainly has her work cut out for her. “May all of his complexion choose me thus!” she exults, after the Prince of Morocco has failed to win her hand in marriage, and Nerissa, who shares that Prince’s complexion, allows her face to betray a momentary flicker of powerless exasperation; it’s one of the production’s most elegant, subtle moments. The fascinating thing about Portia, as MacCluggage plays her, is that she really does have the potential to be the great person she assumes herself to be: she’s brilliant, quick-witted, generous, and kind – to people she assumes to be like herself. (In another great subtle moment, we see her internally congratulating herself for treating the ex-Jewish Jessica with equanimity.) But her flaw is that she assumes too much, and it leaves her vulnerable to betrayal on a massive scale; a lesson she may have learned by the play’s end, when she witnesses the true scope of Bassanio, her new husband, and his feelings for his benefactor and friend, Antonio. Like my seatmate, Portia isn’t evil, just ignorant. Unfortunately, though, ignorance can have the same consequences as evil in many contexts.
The text allows the character of Jessica a lot of leeway; in some productions, Jessica is a thankless brat who’s unequivocally happy to be rid of her father and her Judaism and elope with Lorenzo with whom she is in love. Melissa Miller’s guilt-stricken Jessica lends the entire play an inescapable note of deep sadness; we clearly see that she loves her father but is convinced that his religion will prohibit him – and maybe her, even though she has converted to Christianity when she marries Lorenzo – from going to Heaven; though misguided, this belief makes her much more sympathetic than a venal, lust-driven Jessica would be. As she kisses Shylock for what the audience knows will be the last time, our hearts break for both of them; the decisions that will doom them to lasting unhappiness are so clearly a product of the culture they live in.
As for Christen Simon Marabate’s brilliant Nerissa, her understated, humorous performance ties together a lot of the play’s disparate strands. She provides a sly counterpoint to her occasionally self-serious boss Portia, seeming to always know a bit more than she lets on – even as she follows her boss’s lead in making a match with Gratiano, a feckless dude. Gratiano though offers Nerissa a future. Unlike Portia, Nerissa seems to have what it will take to iron out the inherent flaws in her hasty match. Of all the relationships we see onstage in this production, I’d give Nerissa’s marriage to Gratiano the best odds for survival, if only because she, more than any other character, seems to see things for what they are, not what she’d like them to be or what she assumes they are based on unexamined received notions. If this play teaches us anything, it’s to reexamine our assumptions; heroes seen from one angle are villains glimpsed at from another perspective, and vice versa.