Sunday September 24th 2017

“The Merchant of Venice”

Those who attend the works of Chicago Shakespeare Theatre are used to some modernization in their productions. The classics of William Shakespeare being brought up to the dress and style of today, despite the language being his. That is what makes CST so attractive to today’s audiences. I was not sure what I might see when it was announced that Broadway in Chicago, would have  a Shakespearean “tragedy” on its schedule, but much to my surprise, the touring production of “The Merchant of Venice” now onstage at  the Bank of America Theatre is brilliant! Not only is F.Murray Abraham outstanding in the role of Shylock, the Jew, the entire ensemble of players is up to the task set by director Tarko Tresnjak. This is part of a new program, “theatre for a new audience” and I believe that the presentation they offer, just might make audiences who are afraid of Shakespeare’s work be able to both enjoy the brilliance of his writing and appreciate the actors who make it understandable.

Most everyone knows the story of  wealthy merchant  Antonio ( Tom Nelis) who dotes on young Bassanio ( deftly handled by Lucas Hall) who goes through money like water and causes Antonio to lose a small fortune, Bassanio, in order to repay his friend, has decided to go to neighboring Belmont to vie for the hand of Portia ( the adorable Kate MacCluggage) who has been left a fortune, but her father also made a game out of who will get her hand ( and fortunes). In anticipation of getting these funds, Antonio is forced to go to the Money Lender, Shylock ( a warm and touching portrayal by Abraham, who captures the true feeling of one who has faced anti-Semites). Shylock agrees to lend Antonio the money, but adds to the deal, that should he not be repaid on time, Shylock will get a pound of flesh ( The expression we are familiar with came from this story)

Shylock’s daughter falls in love with a Christian and dressed as a boy, steals valuables from her father and leaves him as does his manservant Launcelot ( a clever character portrayal by Jacob Ming-Trent), who goes to work for  Bassanio. Later, when it is time for Shylock to collect his “pound of flesh” a trial is held and during the trial, where Bassanio has brought enough to cover the loan , PLUS, a young doctor shows up ( this is one of Shakespeare’s changes of identity) where Portia and her servant Nerrisa, leave Belmont for Venice disguised as men and while trying to free their husband’s friend also test the  loyalty of them by asking for the rings they have both swore would never leave their fingers. The trial is a brilliant piece of work in which, the “doctor” defies Shylock and he cannot take his “pound of flesh” and in fact, due to the laws of Venice must give up everything that he owns. Antonio, being spared a possible painful death, says he will take only half of his estate with the provision that he accepts his daughter and her husband, making them his heirs and converts to Christianity, which he mournfully agrees to.

This production is very modern, not only in dress and set as well as music, but the well known caskets are now Apple Computers with giant flat screen projections on the wall and the voices and videos are very ultra modern. The  screens also show the markets and some of the men, in a scene are on the “floor” trading! This is supposedly how this story would unfold, in the future and once we get past all of the commercialism of the computers, TV’s and “Starbucks” and learn to follow the characters, we are  pleasantly surprised by the brilliance of this cast and production. This is a story about “differences”, “Opposites” and that resolution to a situation is not always painless. As the story unfolds, one hopes that each of the characters who are anti-Semitic will get their just rewards for their intolerance, but since life doesn’t aways end as we would want it to, Shylock never gets his revenge for being spat on or being called names and ridiculed. In fact, he suffers the greatest indignity when he is forced to give up his religious beliefs in order to survive. His oath, to take a pound of flesh has the greatest meaning in that all the other pledges and oaths made by the other characters are not followed as is his. While there are many scenes that feel a bit uncomfortable and may cause you some uneasiness, this is one of Shakespeare’s finest works and does make theater audiences aware that despite all we hear, anti-semitism does exist, even today and that awareness is important to making it disappear some day in the future.

“Merchant” is only here for a brief stay at The Bank Of America Theatre located at 18 West Monroe Street- March 27th. Tickets range in price from $22.50 – $72.50. This is the smallest of the main stage theaters of Broadway in Chicago and has wonderful sight lines, so even the upper seating  is fine. For performance dates and times visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com,whereyou can also purchase tickets or call the Broadway In Chicago Ticketline at  800-775-2000, or visit an dof the Broadway in Chicago box offices or Ticketmaster locations.

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