Set in an all-male prison instead of among the Venetian aristocracy, Propeller’s production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice at BAM (through May 17) prizes the ensemble over the individual and farce over formal courtroom proceedings. In fact, these decisions by the company seem to drive the play’s parallel plots – a legal procedural turned vengeful power trip and an ambitious, cross-class courtship – further apart. As the Propeller men wrestle for control of the prison yard set (designed by Michael Pavelka) we cut back and forth between Bassanio (Jack Tarlton) wooing Portia (Kelsey Brookfield), and the merchant Antonio (Bob Barrett) nearing his court date with Jewish financier Shylock (Richard Clothier). One of these threads makes sense in a prison (the deathwish cloaked in legal doublespeak); the other doesn’t (the dreamy romance and ensuing love tests) – which makes for a disappointing climactic legal battle when the two narratives collide.
Merchant (directed by Edward Hall) shifts through its various plots and subplots continuously, but distinctions remain fairly fluid as actors move around the porous stage, a two-level prison ward of three-story vertical bars with a pair of movable cells deployed cleverly throughout. Scenes with Antonio, Shylock and their respective cohorts occur in a fairly brutal realist style not unlike the TV show Oz, with fights, brawls, knifings, robberies, etc. barely policed by an unfortunately marginal Lancelot Gobbo (John Dougall). With the lion’s share of this section’s stage time, Clothier invests the controversial Shylock with a predilection for vengeance that alternately seethes or explodes. Barrett turns in a more compelling (though, sadly, much smaller) performance as the sad, hulking prison lord Antonio. Propeller’s all-male cast accentuates many of Shakespeare’s gender games, but none more explicitly than the love between Antonio and Bassanio. Indeed, despite a forced epilogue that reiterates the evening’s opening line, this production makes more of the text’s romances than its spiraling anti-Semitism.
On the sex farce side of things, two terrific performances by the “female” leads in drag, Brookfield as Portia and Chris Myles as her maid Nerissa, propel Merchant forward. Their scenes – including the ridiculous courtship rituals required of Portia’s suitors by her overbearing father – bear traces of cabaret and music hall routines that evoke The Birdcage and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert with their emphasis on performance, parody and deception. These scenes of bawdy laughter provide welcome relief from the increasingly monotone prison power struggles. Comedy carries the day to such an extent that the play’s traditional narrative climax – the courtroom battle where a disguised Portia convicts Shylock and clears Antonio of his life-threatening debt – is displaced by an uproarious rendition of the denouement wherein the characters pair off. That said, Merchant certainly can’t be faulted for being stuffy, packed as it is with elaborate choreography, fighting, soulful sprinklings of various religious musics, elaborate lighting and a palpable group dynamic.
Still, something doesn’t work in Propeller’s prison setting, which Jon Trenchand (Jessica) explained in a post-performance discussion was originally conceived more metaphorically. “We were trying to create a place where brutal behaviors make sense,” Trenchand continued, which lead to the decision to set Merchant in a very literal prison where certain men dress as women to fulfill some latent need for a conventional social hierarchy. This reinterpretation traps much of Merchant’s drama in repetitive prison games, though it incidentally highlights an unexpectedly strong postcolonial subtext in a play that imports a pompous Moroccan prince (Jonathan Livingstone) for a few facile jokes. Several of this British prison’s inmates are played by black actors, evoking the racial tensions of contemporary England. Subtly, the fraught legacy of Diaspora and socially sanctioned oppression conventionally shouldered solely by Shylock gets a subtle new spin in Propeller’s otherwise limiting jail setting. Seeing such a talented cast struggle with an already awkward and difficult play is generally entertaining, but a little disappointing in the end. All the more so because this Merchant seems trapped in a literal prison of its own making.