Mention Christopher Marlowe’s dark Elizabethan comedy The Jew of Malta, and anti-Semitism comes to mind, not the word “rollicking.” Yet, downtown director David Herskovits (with dramaturgical aid from the Voice‘s Michael Feingold) has taken Marlowe’s play, kept its anti-Semitic aspects intact, and turned it into a contemporary romp. Herskovits’s choices and those of John Lee Beatty (who provides a Hogarth-like caricature of an Elizabethan stage) and David Zinn (whose red gowns and stylized turbans are marvels) perfectly fit Marlowe’s world. It’s a universe where a father poisons not only his daughter (Nicole Lowrance) for converting from Judaism to Christianity, but also everyone in her convent.
Academy Award–winner F. Murray Abraham plays the titular Jew, Barabas, with a terrific blend of gravitas and irony. In addition to enduring his daughter’s conversion, Barabas also suffers as the government seizes his fortune. Assisting in Barabas’s revenge is Ithamore (Arnie Burton), a conniving slave whose instincts for self-preservation run deep. Barabas meets his end in a vat of oil, and as Herskovits’s production gallops to this conclusion, theatergoers gasp, chuckle, and marvel at his audacity (a necrophiliac friar is a deft touch) and the fine performances that abound here.