The Merchant of Venice

  Today they’d call her an activist judge. Portia, Venice’s object of universal affection, prevents a pound of flesh from being shaved off...

FLESH MONGER Fred Wellisch, left, goes in for his pound.

 

Today they’d call her an activist judge. Portia, Venice’s object of universal affection, prevents a pound of flesh from being shaved off of her hubby’s best friend’s chest when she dons judicial drag and reinterprets some contractual fine print. It’s the most exciting moment in Boho’s small, compelling—if visually overstuffed—revival of the Bard’s most accessible play, in part because it exposes the flaw in the writing—the play’s unavoidable anti-Semitism—without trying to mask or apologize for it.

All Shylock wants, after all, is to behave as amorally and barbarically as the garden-variety Christian would, and he’s publicly humiliated for it. The clause in his contract with merchant Antonio stipulates that an unpaid debt can result in mutilation. Here, the moment in which Portia sheds some practical light on the situation (the contract allows for a pound of flesh, she reasons, but not a single drop of blood), she’s greeted as a champion rather than a shyster. Then Shylock is sent on his evil way—he’s even been absolved by the high-minded Christian characters—and happy Shakespearean coupling can continue as usual. (Setting the story in early-20th-century Venice, among a community of featherbrained upper-crust expats, heightens the atmosphere of hypocritical elitism.)

Other than that, it’s a standard revival of the storefront vintage. Robel’s production manages to highlight Boho’s greatest strength and weakness at the same time. As usual, a dewy crop of young talent, most of whom are unfamiliar faces, goes at the text with as much grandeur and professionalism as the tiny raw space allows. And as usual, an unsure design aesthetic holds the troupe back a notch or two. Michelle Julazadeh’s costumes are frilly and flattering, but Stephen Genovese’s confused set, a clutch of asymmetrical doors and poorly executed shadow panels, might have been better as bare black walls.

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