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The Merchant of Venice at Bank of America Theatre | Theater review

F. Murray Abraham makes an elegant, shattering Shylock in Theatre for a New Audience’s top-notch Shakespearean production.

F. Murray Abraham in Theatre for a New Audience's The Merchant of Venice

Shakespeare’s comedy about money, Judaism and iffy contract law is easily his most troubling play. It invites us to laugh at the misfortunes of a stereotypically wicked Jew, but, as critic Stephen Greenblatt has observed, the Bard seems to strive at the same time “to call the laughter into question, to make the amusement excruciatingly uncomfortable.” Shylock the usurer may be vindictive and villainous, but Shakespeare never lets us forget entirely that he’s also a human being who’s been wronged.

This sense of moral complexity pervades Tresnjak’s top-notch staging, a remount of a 2007 New York production from Theatre for a New Audience. The play’s financial-sector Venetians, dressed in suits and toting BlackBerrys and MacBooks, inhabit a world of sleek surfaces and murky depths, where husbands make and break promises in the same breath, justice involves weighing more than right and wrong, and someone can argue eloquently in favor of mercy seconds before withholding it.

As Portia, MacCluggage conveys both sharp intelligence and its corollary, bullheadedness. Even in small roles, the acting is fine; Melissa Miller, as Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, for example, manages to seem riven in two over abandoning her father and faith to run away with a lover. Then, of course, there’s Abraham as Shylock himself—a precisely calibrated performance that starts from a position of elegant control before giving way to a shattering outpouring of pent-up vengefulness and hurt.

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