- The Merchant of Venice
With its innovative all-male interpretations of Twelfth Night, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Winter’s Tale, Propeller has emerged as a leading contemporary Shakespeare ensemble. While all-male interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays are not unfamiliar to contemporary audiences, Propeller has distinguished itself by the self-consciousness of its aesthetic. The company shuns any attempt at verisimilitude in its representation of female roles, taking pains to draw attention to the male gender of the actors interpreting them. Propeller’s slogan is, after all, “In the company of men.”
The Merchant of Venice, recently presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, continued this tradition. Mixing markers of male and female dress, Hannah Lobelson’s costume design paired buzz cuts and bustiers, fishnets and fedoras. For example, a pronounced five-o’clock shadow surrounded Portia’s bright red lipstick, while a pair of suspenders, from either side of which sprung an abundance of chest hair, reinforced Nerissa’s hybrid bodice. Although both scholarly and journalistic reviews have commended Propeller’s aesthetic for opening up the interpretive range of contemporary casting, such an approach is not without its pitfalls. Propeller’s decision to set its Merchant in a modern prison cellblock introduced noteworthy complications for the company’s approach to gender and sexuality, as well as for the play’s ethno-religious politics, immortalized in the figure of Shylock.
Shylock, though the object of vicious persecution, paradoxically remains an unsympathetic figure in Shakespeare’s Merchant. While this likely would not have registered as a point of tension for audiences of the intensely anti-Semitic London of the 1590s, Shylock’s treatment in subsequent productions reflected historically shifting attitudes toward Jews: Macklin’s terrifying interpretation of the eighteenth century gave way to Irving’s injured hero in the century following. For contemporary audiences, being confronted with the ambivalence to which the character of Shylock gives rise remains one of the challenges of a play some critics have deemed un-performable after Auschwitz, a challenge to which contemporary productions must remain sensitive in order to avoid reducing Shylock to either a tragic hero or a Marlovian villain.
Propeller’s Merchant opened and closed with the inserted line, “Which is the Christian, and which the Jew?” Delivered from amidst Michael Pavelka’s double-tiered cellblock set, this question asserted the production’s primary assumption: racial and religious differences are necessarily eclipsed by a prison ethos that reduces the incarcerated solely to their capacity for violence. Accordingly, Richard Clothier delivered a Shylock whose brutality fiercely rivaled that of the prison’s Christian majority. The profound significance for Shylock of the loss of both ducats and daughter was obscured by the ferocity of Clothier’s performance, just as his delivery of the celebrated “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech was overwhelmed by the screams of the Christian inmate whose eye Shylock was simultaneously ripping from its socket. While framing the production with the aforementioned question pointed toward the broader systemic violence at work within modern punitive institutions, the gesture problematically suggested a commensurability between Merchant’s Christian and Jewish characters, to say nothing of its Muslims. In an effort to remain accessible to its contemporary audience, Propeller’s production offered the spectator a reduced and palatable dilemma, the articulation of which obscured a much more complex constellation of questions of race and religion.
If the violence of Propeller’s prison setting contributed to a reduction of Merchant’s ethno-religious politics, it similarly compromised the company’s representation of queer male sexuality. That bodies and their parts are commodified in Merchant, whether as collateral or the objects of romantic suits, was not lost on director Edward Hall’s staging, which foregrounded the play’s corporeal economy. For her first entrance, Portia was wheeled center stage inside one of the set’s modular prison cells to the raucous chanting of the surrounding inmates, who then became referents for the list of her failed suitors. The staging’s pronounced sexualization of the relationship between...