The Merchant of Venice @ BAM, New York

cast list
Bob Barrett, Kelsey Brookfield, Babou Ceesay, Richard Clothier, Richard Dempsey, John Dougall, Richard Frame, Jonathan Livingstone, Chris Myles, David Newman, Thomas Padden, Sam Swainsbury, Jack Tariton, John Trenchard

directed by
Edward Hall
There are plenty of excellent companies tackling Shakespeare at the moment, including Sam Mendes’s Bridge Project, which, like the Propeller production of The Merchant of Venice, recently took up residence at BAM’s Harvey Theatre in Brooklyn.

Few, however, have the audacity of Propeller, an all-male troupe with a bent for bending the Bard’s plays in interesting and challenging ways.

Choosing to begin and end the production with the Duke’s central question – “Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?” – Propeller seeks to hone in on the religious aspects of Merchant, one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays to interpret.

By somewhat problematically resetting the play in a three-tiered prison (design is by Michael Pavelka), the action of the play becomes combustible, as if tightly packed into a powder keg ready to burst.
The familiar central plot of the play revolves around Portia’s search for a husband as well as Antonio’s debt to the Jewish merchant Shylock, who’s given him a loan on collaterial of a pound of flesh.

If the courageous decision to stage the play as a prison drama is somewhat misguided, the performances are still astounding all around, and the actors’ palsy, casual portrayals of their characters serve the production well. If modern companies seem sometimes to revere Shakespeare’s words to an unseemly degree, this production treats his text as casual, everyday speech – at least as much so as a company can considering it must still project its line-readings to a crowd of rapt theatergoers.

Bob Barrett makes a commanding Antonio, and Richard Clothier’s Shylock is sympathetic and three-dimensional in ways that portrayals of this fairly anti-Semitically drawn character often aren’t.

In female roles, Jon Trenchard is poised and ladylike as Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, and Kelsey Brookfield is fierce as Portia, strutting the stage in cropped pants and heels like an exotic visitor to the production’s theoretical prison – the one whom all the inmates want to grab at. For the most part, the cross-dressing roles are played without an overtly gay bent, though there’s a drag sensibility to the performances that seaps through on occasion.

Mostly what’s impressive about the Propeller company is that, under the direction of Edward Hall, they’ve clearly got a respect for Shakespeare’s text without displaying ball-and-chain reverence. Subtle liberties are taken, and the play’s setting is reimagined, but what’s on-stage is still very much a formidable interpretation of The Merchant of Venice.

Propeller’s past productions at BAM have mainly been of Shakespeare’s comedies (A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night), and their style seems like it might be more suited to lighter subject matter, where more could be made of gender-bending roles. Still, this Merchant is a must-see for those curious about the latest interpretations of Shakespeare.

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