The Merchant of Venice comes of age

As the potential suitor from Morocco stood in front of three tables, each holding an apple laptop, a deep mechanical voice read out his options: "Chooseth me and you shall gain what many men desire, chooseth me and you shall get as much as he deserves, chooseth me and you must give and hazard all he hath." Content with his decision he inserts a flash drive into the golden computer and immediately a skull appears on the monitor behind him, denying him the right to marry the exquisite Portia. The Merchant of Venice, the well-known play written by William Shakespeare is about a Venetian man Antonio, who makes a deal with a Jewish moneylender Shylock, in order to provide money for his best friend to be able to marry the beautiful heiress, Portia. The plot comes into action when Antonio cannot pay back Shylock and is forced to give a pound of his flesh. As Antonio's friends protest, they are all taken before the judge, and with some characters in disguise, they attempt to annul the contract that claims a pound of Antonio's flesh before it is too late.

The play was directed by Darko Tresnjak, a former artistic director, and was presented at the Santa Monica Broad Stage on Friday April 15, 2011 starring Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham. Abraham has a long list of works including production in The Jew of Malta, and The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit. His on-screen roles include films such as Scarface, Law & Order, and Amadeus which he had received an Academy Award for.

The actors were able to transport the Shakespearian era into a present day tragic comedy due to their extensive work in the entertainment industry.  Jonathan Epstein plays Venetian merchant Antonio and has also performed on and off Broadway in productions including King Lear and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Raphael Nash Thompson who plays Morocco, and Jacob Ming-Trent who plays Launcelot Gobbo have both made appearances on television shows such as "Law & Order."

Tresnjak has worked for the Old Globe Shakespeare Theatre in San Diego as artistic director and has won numerous awards including three San Diego Critics Circle Awards. Some of his other works include Pericles, Hamlet, and Rosencrantz And Guildenstern are Dead.

Tresnajak attempts to set the location and time of the play in a more present day era. Three flat inch television screens are positioned center stage and display rapidly changing numbers. The set is fixed and shows off little to no color that would bring about a Shakespearian feel. As the scenes change, the transition is shown through different visuals on the television screens and through an occasional lowering of lanterns from above the stage.

July Wagner, a member of the audience, was pleased with the outcome of the play. "It took a very different approach with a different interpretation and it did take a while to kick in. And Murray Abraham was divine. It was very up to date but they still used Shakespeare's words, it was excellent," said Wagner.

Although the modern twist of an old tale was popular among the audience, it did present some difficulty in understanding the dialogue and situation. The costumes worn by the actors were not flamboyant, but instead professional business attire. The male actors were dressed in professional suits, and the woman in conservative classy dresses.

Without the proper Shakespearian attire and set, it is almost impossible to delight in the classical story. Aside from the materialistic version of the production, the life lessons learned in all Shakespearian plays are always relevant even in today's society.

Props used throughout the entire production helped revive the austere set and made it clear as to the time and date it takes place in. Smart phones and Bluetooth devices were used as communication between characters, digital cameras and flat television screens made it clear they were in a modern location.

"The way they made the play so modern kinda reminded me of the movie Romeo and Juliet with Leo DiCaprio. It had that sort of twist to it that was a little difficult to understand at first, but you have to remind yourself that it's Shakespeare. And seeing Abraham's performance was really exciting," said Juan Lopez, a freshman at Santa Monica College.

Selma Kaufer was among the many who contributed to the show's full house. "It was great. They were all good and everything was so professional," said Kaufer.

The Merchant of Venice opened at the Broad stage on Thursday April 14, 2011 and will run through Friday April 22, 2011.