There is little doubt that F. Murray Abraham is talented, being one of the most respected actors of his generation, on stage and on screen. But why? What makes him unique and influential to the way characters are portrayed? Until watching him live I had no idea. On screen he is brilliant; but on stage he truly is on another level. Not only does he seem genuine in feelings, the way many actors portray their characters, but he is seemingly genuine in his behavior; every movement he makes, every expression, is consistent with everything his character has done throughout the play. Unlike many other performers, no impulsive and incoherent decisions or actions exist in his performances. This is what truly divides him from the multitude, and makes his works ones for the ages.
In this performance he played Shylock. Shylock is a character for whom a very particular and unusual chain of events have to pass for him to be brought to his demise. Therefore he must retain the right amount of dignity, honor, charity, and even wisdom throughout each catastrophe until he finally snaps at the end of the play. It is easy to overplay the part and make Shylock truly look like a villain from the start, which defeats the purpose of so tragic an outcome. Mr. Abraham's talents were suited to this task. He had to think out each action, and display no outward greed or sinfulness, while inside he was pinning his hopes on things that were soon lost, until he had no hope left to pin.
There were many notable performances aside from Abraham's. But one really stood out to me. Lancelot Gobbo, the servant of Shylock, was un-conventional to the extent in which he would have been laughed at if he'd played any other role. But Gobbo is a character who is extremely quirky at times, and therefore the actors who portray him must be as well. In his first scene, to everyone’s surprise, out stomped a heavy African-American man with semi-dreadlocks, smoking a joint. This caught the audience off-guard, and it took him fifteen seconds to quiet them down. He then promptly began to jiving a heavy accent, sending the house into roaring laughter again. But the funniest part of his act is how well it worked! He was perfect for a jolly man, though witty, and always looking out for Number One.
But plays are not all about their actors. Though modern, and cleverly crafted, the set of this production was very minimalist. There were three laptops on desks which served as the three caskets, and three TVs above them, to display their messages and contribute to the atmosphere of the setting. The entire set was metallic and made of panels. Many entrances began from behind these panels and, due to the rapid blurring and un-blurring as they walked in-between panels, looked like holograms. This brilliant staging acted as a gateway to the many acting talents showcased in the event.
The production of Merchant we saw at the Joseph Papp Public Theater on Broadway, starring Al Pacino, was different, larger and more expensive. But it was blown away by this smaller but classier production. The true talent of these actors shone through the small set, and illuminated the faults of its more expensive counterfeit.
Pace University has some great Shakespeare (This particular production was actually co-done by Theater for a new audience). I've seen three plays there and each one had its own unexpected surprise. If you’re in NYC, don't miss one of their productions.