The Merchant of Venice / The Jew of Malta
nytheatre.com review by Chris Harcum
December 2, 2009
At a time when people are losing fortunes through Ponzi schemes, Muslims are being harassed in Switzerland, and gay marriage is shot down in Albany, a revenge tragedy about a Jewish merchant in southern Europe could not be more appropriate. The York Shakespeare Company's production of The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe is now running in repertory with Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice at the Goldman-Sonnenfeldt Auditorium in the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
It would be remiss not to point out the obvious: two classical verse dramas centered on Jewish characters at a JCC timed to run during Hanukkah. While the pairing is not a new idea—a recent run of both plays was done a couple seasons ago with F. Murray Abraham at Theatre for a New Audience—it is nice to have the local team take a few swings at this monster of a play.
The curtains of this well-appointed playing space open on the title character, Barabas, counting his money. "Fie, what a trouble 'tis to count this trash!" The resonance to pre-economic-downturn Wall Street stands out in bold immediately. This is cut short when Malta, an archipelago south of Sicily, is taken over. The Jews are given an ultimatum: give half their estate; if not, be converted to Christianity; and if not that, lose all they have. Barabas is stripped of everything, which happens to be greater than the wealth of all of Malta, and his house is quickly filled with nuns. He plots how he will exact his comeuppance using his daughter disguised as a nun to get some of the gold in his home and to kill a bunch of people. In the end we learn that Christians, Muslims, and Jews are capable of doing bad things for their own self-aggrandizement, including murder. Feigned morals be damned.
This production, under the direction of Seth Duerr, seems to owe its back-to-basics style to the movie Reservoir Dogs. There is little on stage, except the occasional table or chair, and the men are mostly dressed in black suits with white shirts. This puts the focus of the work on the actors who must create for the audience the world of the play through handling Marlowe's language and clear interactions with one another. While this company is strong at attacking the mountain of words, the sense of what is happening is mostly missing. This then puts the load of the work on the audience who must figure out what is being is said and why it matters.
My hat goes off to Paul Rubin for taking on the Herculean role of Barabas. Like Richard III, he is on most of the play and says most of the lines. He is likeable one minute and a psychopath another. Emily Rose Prats evokes much sympathy as Abigail. Richard Zekaria brings a light tough to playing Ithamore. Nate Washburn and Brian Morvant add a bit of danger to the evening as the dueling Don Lodowick and Don Mathias respectively.
Going to see this is a great idea if you are looking to get a break from anything related to A Christmas Carol, The Nutcracker, or tales about Santa Claus. Most holiday fare centers on the joys of giving and the nobleness of sacrifice. The Jew of Malta is more about the problems with taking and the consequences of violence.