After the Library of Congress I met Jason at his office building. We walked to Penn Quarter to get dinner at a place called Teaism before going to see the Shakespeare Theatre Company's The Merchant of Venice at Sidney Herman Hall.
This is the newer performance space for this company and it's beautiful. The lobby area is all orange and glass in a very contemporary way, and the theater itself is comfortable and enviable.
This production was set in New York during the Jazz Age. The commercial importance of the setting and the abutment of the Jewish and the Italian neighborhoods worked, but you just can't escape the fact that this play was written for an audience with very different mentalities. "I wish," I told Jason on the train home, "that we could see the show from the Elizabethan perspective. To see Shylock as really evil and to see his conversion as a merciful victory." I have a hard time watching this play, as I do with Twelfth Night, because of the cruelty. In this production they really twisted the knife at the end of the trial scene, though, by having Gratiano laughingly chase after Shylock to rip the yarmulke off his head and toss it to the ground. The other characters laughed while Shylock silently continues his slow walk off stage, covering his head with his hands. It was awful.
There were some good choices - the suitors had great costumes, one in a classic 1920's aviator ensemble and one in a blue-and-white yachting outfit complete with fluffy dog-in-arms. Jessica showed up at Portia's house quite visibly pregnant which, if you forgive the strange calendar math that would require (or maybe it's a vampire baby growing in there at freakish speed), gives a nice motivation for her to elope with Lorenzo.
The Italians, especially Salarino, spoke with thick New York accents. I didn't like this choice, since the rhythm of that accent jars against the rhythm of the script. Actually, a lot of the actors were difficult to understand, and they missed quite a few possible jokes. The production kept to the more dramatic tones and it was less enjoyable without people you can genuinely root for. The production notes said, "In no other of Shakespeare's plays is the word 'love' said do frequently, yet it is unclear precisely when, or if, these characters are capable of actually falling in love." The unpoetic, unromantic business side of marriage was the emphasis here, although there were two ideas they hinted at that I wished they had committed to more fully and played out better - one, that the fathers in the play set things up to take care of their daughters knowing that they make bad choices in love (this is more obvious in the riddle for Portia, but the director also connected it to Shylock and Jessica with the final bit of blocking at the end. At least that's what I hope they were going for).
The other was most obviously hinted when Portia gives Antonio the ring to give back to Bassanio. At this point the staging had Portia and Antonio on the floor at the foot of the big staircase and Bassanio on the landing halfway up. Antonio takes the ring, goes up the stairs to Bassanio, takes his hand, and slides the ring on Bassanio's finger while everyone looks on from below.
Well, that's an interesting twist on the Bassanio-Antonio relationship. Jason said afterwards that they had been hinting at that all along, citing body language cues in their first scene together that I was completely oblivious to. I had spent the time trying to think of real-life examples of that level of mentor-mentee love and respect between two men. I actually thought of one, recalling the tender interactions between Phra Bart and Phra Sanjoy last summer. This was fresh in my mind, since I had just gotten the news from Phra Sanjoy that Phra Bart passed away in his sleep this week. With that example in mind, I watched Bassanio weep all over Antonio's shirt in the trial scene (which seemed pretty inconsiderate, really. If a man's condemned to die for the sake of your debt, at least have the decency not to get snot all over his shoulder while they tie him up for the execution) and figured that perhaps that kind of bond could exist between two men after all.
Just not in this production, apparently.