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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theatre for KCRW.

It's been part of the drill for centuries for directors to stage Shakespeare in exotic locales and different time periods. As You Like It in the Civil War; A Midsummer in a disco, Orson Welles' MacBeth in Harlem. In a way, Shakespeare himself got the ball rolling by setting his plays in foreign lands.

In The Merchant of Venice currently at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, director Darko Tresnjak has substituted the traders of Venice for the traders of Wall Street. In this sleek, cleanly staged production from New York, we are squarely in the world of BlackBerrys and credit default swaps. The physical language comes from the trading floor. The braggadocio is the testosterone filled gambles of the financial markets.

The Merchant of Venice follows the story of Basanio, a handsome young man, who desperately wants to woo the beautiful and wealthy Portia. Trouble is he's a little short on cash. Enter his dear 'friend' Antonio who's willing to take out a loan on his behalf. The only person willing to make that loan is "The Jew," Shylock - and that's a problem because the deal he wants to strike is a pound of human flesh if Antonio defaults. Now that's a collateralized debt obligation.

The reason to see, or not to see, any production of The Merchant of Venice is Shylock. The Oscar-winning actor, F. Murray Abraham, beautifully tackles the role in the current production. He brings a quiet power to Shylock's machinations. Rather than forcing the audience to confront the character, Abraham invites us in with his command of the language.

Still, the challenge with this notoriously difficult play is that it's blatantly anti-Semitic. How do you reconcile the brutal slurs and the forced conversion of a central character at the heart of a comedy? Our modern sensibility is to try and soften the blow or justify the ugliness. Surely the great humanist Shakespeare can't mean these horrific slurs. But that's up to you to decide.

What isn't up for discussion is the clarity of the larger message. The power of setting the play in the glossy world of high finance is the ready context it gives the audience. It's easy for us to make the leap from foreclosed homes and sub-prime loans to a bond for a pound of flesh. In a business that revolves around heartless deals, maybe a guy like Shylock makes sense. Tresnjak's production is remarkably clear, maybe too clear. It's like watching the titans of wall street profess empty regrets for the financial meltdown. It's all a bit too easy, too clean. We don't ultimately understand what's behind it all. We long for something messier, more complicated. What's missing seems to be the real emotion . . . and maybe that's Tresnjak's - and Shakespeare's - point about a world that revolves around money.

Merchant of Venice plays at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica through this Sunday, April 24.

For info on the show text the word "curtain" to 69866 and join the conversation at KCRW.com/theatre.

Next week God of Carnage at the Ahmanson. In a word - GO!

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theatre for KCRW.


Banner image: F. Murray Abraham as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

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