Edward Hall directs the all-male ensemble of Watermill Theatre and Propeller, giving the audience at the Brooklyn Academy of Music an unfiltered and energetic performance of The Merchant of Venice. Michael Pavelka’s stark and towering set design offers a constricting environment that pushes the characters to their emotional breaking points. Three stories of iron prison cells loom over the stage, and two rows of audience sit stage level to witness up close the violence over religion, sexuality and gender.
In a semi-collaborative process with the actors, Hannah Lobelson dresses the cast in a standard neutral palette, letting accessories create personalities within the institution’s regulations. Although the male characters wear similar, non-descript prison clothing, there is clear division between religions—between the majority and its victimized minority. The stage space is divided—Christians on the left, Jews on the right—and while the stage blocking allows for some crossover, these opposite sides act as home bases. All the Christians are clean-shaven and have some sort of cross insignia, whether a necklace or a tattoo. The Jews are bearded with heads covered at all times, a point the Christians ridicule by stealing their hats and caps. Gregorian chants echo through the vast gridiron at times, and the Kol Nidre, an Aramaic declaration recited (here sung) during Yom Kippur, resonates alluringly from stage right. The incarcerated Christians sing gospel music to release their imprisoned souls, and as the trial scene begins, they musically invoke the parable of Daniel and the lion's den in an attempt to plant Christian mercy in Shylock's heart. Despite class, crimes, and ethnicity, each side is bound by their faiths and superiority complexes over the "misguided believers" on the other side of the cellblock.
This is an oil and vinegar coexistence. The fedora-topped Salerio (Sam Swainsbury) revels in the conflict, taunting and teasing the afflicted. He laughs incessantly as Shylock mourns his ducats and his daughter, but the tables turn in a fleeting moment of adrenaline. During his famed monologue, “If you prick us do we not bleed?” Shylock channels the most horrific scene from King Lear. The moment is a turning point, and the horror provides insight into the dark reality of hatred confined within this play. Richard Clothier as Shylock begins as a merry, funny, almost amiable man, but under endless assaults of relentless torment, Shylock cannot help but strike the hand that hits. But this is a life sentence for Shylock and for all these men. Even as they crumble, the torments continue.
Antonio (Bob Barrett) acts like a big shot, mafia don-type in tired spats. He tries to stay aloof, but there is nowhere to go in this environment, and he, too, turns to violence as a means to survive. Bassanio (Jack Tarlton) is too wrapped up in his romantic and possibly fatal drama to worry about whether a cross or a star holds true salvation.
This is not the first production to link Antonio and Bassanio in a sexual relationship. Within cellblock Venice, Antonio offers Bassanio protection, identity, and the perks that make life on the inside a little more bearable. But is the homoerotic relationship a means, or is it the desired end? The two men share rhyming lines like lovers when discussing the terms of the bond, but even though these men offer their flesh for the sake of the other, Antonio’s commitment of love is unreturned. A half-clothed Bassanio emerging from Antonio’s cell perhaps indicates there is a physical relationship, but as Bassanio leaves to woo Portia, one questions if he’s moving on, or if he ever desired his suitor in the first place.
In a magical cellblock called Belmont, Portia (Kelsey Brookfield) and Nerissa (Chris Myles) are fierce transvestites dressed in corsets and heels. Nerissa’s ripped hose, heeled boots, white dingy corset and men’s suspenders make her saucy, and although she’s a little rough around the edges, Myles imbues gutsy pride in his character. Portia is even more curious, as Brookfield enters in a black corset doing a tame but seductive dance along the prison bars. Though Brookfield becomes more demure with a jacket and fewer antics, this is still far from the mature lady the text details.
While Brookfield’s Portia lacks a typical feminine softness, Jon Trenchard as Jessica has an abundance. Jessica is an obedient daughter, but she is also observant, watching the casket game with keen, fearful interest and vulnerability. When she eventually disobeys her father, she is racked with guilt and frustration and cannot enjoy the fruits of her escape. Her scene with Lorenzo in Belmont is not played lovey-dovey; rather, Trenchard’s remorseful tone deftly acknowledges that these lovers are ill-fated rebels.
While Portia and Nerissa prance around in their gender-bending get-ups, Jessica is confined to traditional, shapeless modesty. The audience sees Nerissa’s bare nipples where his suspenders hold up his corset, and Portia partially undresses during her monologue after the caskets, but Jessica is completely covered in drab hand-me-downs and a headscarf. She escapes with the sweet-hearted Lorenzo (Richard Dempsey) in drag, but she looks genuinely uncomfortable, and remains feminine in manner and dress throughout the rest of the performance. The fact that Trenchard is male doesn’t really affect his female character. Even her shaved head is excused by prison custom, not her lack of femininity.
The text defines specific religious and gender dynamics, but the penitentiary and its inherent isolation exaggerates these characteristics with mixed results. The three-tiered, distressed cellblocks cut the stage vertically and horizontally, with some cells on wheels to change scenes. Within these metal bars outside rules don’t apply. This is a place where bonds are sealed in blood and a man bets his heart because he has nothing more valuable to lose. This high-stakes pressure cooker condenses the extremes. Shylock is tormented by hate and Antonio’s love is around every corner. But in comparison, the scenes at Belmont seem fanciful—a creation to fend off boredom, unfortunately frivolous in light of the bond on Antonio’s life. Brookfield even acknowledges the triviality in Portia’s marriage prospects by displaying her character’s only half-hearted affection toward Bassanio after he has won her.
Placing the plot within this specific context begs other questions: Why are each of them in jail? What would happen and who would they be if or when they are released? Are they resigned to life in prison, or is there more to the story after the final scene of the play? Is Merchant just a play within the prison setting, with the prisoners just playing Antonio and Shylock, Christian and Jew? This production is bookended by this very meta-theatrical sentiment, but it is baffling why it is necessary with such complex, intricate source material. In art, theater, and fashion, less can be more, and this jailbird Merchant piles tricks and ribbons, as pretty and gender bending as they are, on top of a Caravaggio.