Though classified as a comedy in the First Folio, The Merchant of Venice isn’t very funny. Yes, the delineation of a Shakespeare play as a comedy has more to do with a happy resolution—usually exemplified by a marriage—than with incitement to giggling, but even here the play doesn’t satisfy. Shylock meets a dismal fate, and Portia and Bassanio have their nuptial day, but does anyone care?
Shakespeare’s publishers didn’t. On the title page of the first edition, they billed the play as showing “the extreme cruelty of Shylock the Jew towards the said Merchant, in cutting a just pound of his flesh”—”The obtaining of Portia by the choice of three chests” appears as an afterthought. One of Shakespeare’s earliest critics, Nicholas Rowe, wrote, “tho we have sent that Play Receiv’d and Acted as a Comedy . . . yet I cannot but think it was designed Tragically by the Author. [It] cannot agree with the Stile or Characters of Comedy.”
Comedy, though, is director Edward Hall’s forte. Propeller, Hall’s all-male U.K. Shakespeare company, has brought several comedies (and one romance) to BAM, most recently a delicious double bill of Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew. So the question of how the corps would handle this darker material shrouded The Merchant of Venice‘s opening night. The great advantage of Hall’s comedies has been their playfulness and improvisatory quality: Want to be a girl? Put on a skirt! Need a tune played? Grab a lute! Here, the ensemble is as excellent as ever, but their liveliness has calcified into something more laborious.
Hall’s Merchant plays out amid a squalid prison. The inmates flash homemade shivs and adopt the slighter men (and one burly one) as consorts. The jailhouse setting highlights the play’s violence and helps explain the cross-dressed men, but the conceit doesn’t sustain all the play’s elements. In the closed system of the prison, it makes even less sense for Bassanio to abandon Antonio and woo Portia—or for that wooing to necessitate a hefty loan.
Hall also simplifies many of the play’s more complicated aspects: Here, the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio, often a puzzler, is clearly homosexual. And the dilemma as to whether Shakespeare means us to sympathize with Shylock or vilify him? Well, the moneylender delivers the “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech while removing one from the socket of a fellow prisoner. Hall is a spirited and inventive director, but this play, and that famed pound of flesh, weighs heavily on him.
Ethan Coen’s Offices, another comedy, isn’t funny either. Yet this owes not to a publishing misclassification, but instead to Coen himself. His jokes are few—and bad. Coen recently published a collection of poetry called The Drunken Driver Has the Right of Way, in which the title piece observed the benefits of bad behavior: “The Kubla Khan can butt in line;/The biggest brute can take what’s mine;/When heavyweights break wind, that’s fine.” Coen applies a similar thesis to these three one-acts, which have settings only slightly more salubrious than a prison: Two take place in corporate offices, one in the Office of Homeland Security.
In a series of short, assaultive scenes about unpleasant workplaces, the Atlantic Theater’s 11-member cast antagonize, embarrass, and insult one another. If these scenes are colorless, the verbal abuse is not: Coen’s curses range from “stooge fucker” to “nameless tormentor” to “bitch baby” to “shit-squeezer.” What the plays lack in humor and cleverness they make up for in ineffectual fury. Perhaps Coen should take a coffee break. Make it decaf.