To txt or not to txt? That’s increasingly the question for “updated” Shakespeare productions. (To be sure: Every new interpretation of Shakespeare is, by definition, “updated.” Few are performed in doublet and hose, and even the most faithful ones at Shakespeare’s Globe make use of modern accents, intonations, and, inevitably, moral and social sensibilities.) But the ubiquity of portable telecommunications and social media have made the issue of modernization more visible than ever: We frown on smartphones in the audience, but do they belong in the Bard’s “Wooden O”? Director Darko Tresnjak, the mind behind a new(ish) vision of The Merchant of Venice (starring F. Murray Abraham as Shylock), answers emphatically in the affirmative. His Venetians come equipped with BlackBerries, iPhones, digital cameras, and Blueteeth out the wazoo. And boy, they use them, with varying degrees of dramatic effectiveness and look-at-me gimmickry.
First off: Yes, there’s yet another Merchant in town, hot on Al Pacino’s departing heels. This one originated in 2007 (it’s being revived for a tour) and glitters with pre-crash portents: All is translucent Wall Street lucite and brushed-nickel meretriciousness, a busy little dream world made of marzipan, easy credit, and workaday cruelty, about to be shaken to pieces. Abraham’s Shylock displays none of that weary, screw-the-bastards biliousness that fueled Pacino — he’s more comfortable in a system that hates him, yet enriches him, and more deeply implicated in its compounded evils. He also loves his daughter Jessica (Melissa Miller) more demonstrably, more purely than Pacino’s Shylock did; her elopement with the somewhat dull-witted Christian Lorenzo (Vince Nappo) hits his heart harder than his pride or his pocketbook. Abraham’s a master of his craft, and his ease and nuance in the role are impressive. Still, I couldn’t help but feel his refined technique slightly at odds with the jokey, rambunctious goadings of Tresnjak’s overall vision: Especially in the climactic courtroom scene, facing the judgment of Portia (Kate McCluggage, nicely leavening her character’s fairy-tale infallibility with spikes of plain old mean-girl cruelty), Abraham’s tragic defeat is almost too grandly sad for the plasticine world the show’s created. The performance most properly proportioned to the director’s overall interpretation isn’t Abraham’s, hermetically excellent as it is — that honor goes to Jacob Ming-Trent’s Launcelot Gobbo, Shylock’s houseboy/fool. Ming-Trent is large, African-American, and, when we meet him in the midst of an anti-Semitic rant, rocking a big spliff. He plays the character’s know-nothing bigotry for truly discomfiting laughs, and is perhaps the purest (and most pop-contemporary) manifestation of the way Tresnjak has chosen to deal with Merchant’s collision of Otherness and money. (Kudos, also, to Tom Nelis’s clammy, creepy Antonio, a living corpse of a man who’s the poster boy for all those faceless corporate bailout recipients.)
This is, after all, a Merchant of status updates and Facebook browsings, of digital-picture uploads and one-sided earpiece conversations. (One thing phones are good for: They make those “messenger” roles much more fun.) But anytime you put technology onstage (or in movies, for that matter), you slap an expiration date on your work. Even the Macbook Pros that represent Portia’s three “caskets” — the husband-selecting game show designed by her dead father — are starting to look a little long in the Bluetooth. (And the goofy animations they display could use an upgrade. Maybe by someone who’s actually watched a video or two on the ol’ Interwebs?)
Most of the time, appropriation of current technology in a Shakespearean world plays as a gag, and the audience responds as such. Tresnjak chooses his moments cleverly. I especially liked the way Portia and her long-suffering assistant Nerissa (Christen Simon Marabate) looked up her suitors’ profiles. But does this sort of thing sink us deeper into the action, or yank us out of it?
What think ye, friends and netizens? Should Shakespeare be on Foursquare, jockeying to be “mayor” of the Eastcheap Boar’s Head? When you poke him, does he not tweet? Or would you rather he keep things a bit more ‘Bethan-punk? (And if you can come up with a better elision of “Elizabethan” and “steampunk,” please, be my guest.)
The Merchant of Venice is playing at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University through March 13.