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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Merchant, Well-Met

AS WITH ANY RACIALLY CHARGED SUBJECT, there are many contexts in which “The Merchant of Venice” can be viewed. Jews were still barred from Shakespeare’s London, and the rich, complicated anti-Semitism of the time had just been jogged by the execution of the Queen’s physician, a converted Portuguese Jew accused of plotting against her. I’ve seen several recent essays of the play that defines the context of the analysis as “in a post-holocaust world,” which remains our inevitable lens, but some manner of holocaust has been going on for centuries, inviting varying degrees of awareness.

Erick Avari and Jonathan Epstein.
Photo by John Dolan.
In Shakespeare’s time – and well beyond – there was a stock-character Jew that could be relied upon to provoke hisses and laughs. He is an unnamed figure in one of the stories told in the 14th-century Italian collection “Il Pecorone,” but he specifies a pound of flesh as the penalty should Ansaldo (Antonio in “Merchant”) default on a loan.

But in expanding this story, Shakespeare made more dramatic sense of its elements. The unnamed lady of Belmonte became Portia, and her annoying habit of drugging suitors and stealing their goods changed to the situation wherein her suitors could win her only by choosing the correct of three caskets. Most importantly, Shakespeare humanized Shylock, his Jew, offering a more fully realized character driven by circumstance to seek his bloody revenge.

Taken in the context of Shakespeare’s time, it’s a remarkable portrayal, challenging a worthy actor to inhabit the character’s shifts and nuance. Shakespeare & Co.’s new production features Jonathan Epstein, who has been reliably excellent in everything I’ve seen him perform there but who tops even himself as he rampages through this role. He has, for starters, a voice that he sculpts from moment to moment and scene to scene into a remarkable representation of all his character thinks and feels. He cam storm; he can wheedle. His voice can laugh and cry without a chuckle or tear. His face is a mask – and this production reminds us that Venice is a city of masks – that tips us to the amount of control this Shylock maintains over his emotional display. Epstein argues in a program-accompanying essay that he sees the character not as stereotyped representation of his race but as a flawed individual, and it’s a compelling piece of writing – but it’s all there in the portrayal. When, in his final scene, Shylock is forced to convert, Epstein doffs yarmulke and tzitzit with an ambiguous grin (and the line, “I am content”) that stays with you through the rest of the play.

Tina Packer directed this production, which plays at her eponymous theater re-jiggered for in-the-round, and it works nicely on the bare, black stage, itself rent on the diagonal by a white cross. We need no gondolas or water to convince us it’s Venice, and Kris Stone’s striking set design gives us an array of color-changing globes over the actors’ heads to reinforce the otherworldly nature of the piece. “Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music creep in our ears,” says Lorenzo (the effervescent Deaon Griffin-Pressly) at the top of Act Five. “There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st but in his motion like an angel sings,” and the combination of text and Daniel Levy’s music offers a welcome sense of peace after the tumult of the previous act, and transitions us to the finale, a silly reckoning of rings given wrongly and mistaken identity set right. It’s again out of “Il Pecorone,” but again Shakespeare invents the characters behind the actions. Chief among them Portia (Tamara Hickey), a woman of wealth and intelligence, played by the noble Hickey with a good sense of how tricky such a combination would have been in that era. As her servant, Nerissa, Bella Merlin is an excellent complement.

Shahar Isaac is Bassanio, her successful suitor, who seemed too youthful at first – but his voice soon settled into smoother tones and transparent cadences, and he became an appropriate suitor indeed. Part of his challenge was playing against Jason Asprey, as Graziano, who brings a scene-dominating energy to his fine work.

Thomas Brazzle, Jason Asprey, Tamara Hickey,
Shahar Isaac, Bella Merlin. Photo by John Dolan.
The role of Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, is a difficult one: she can be seen as a villain of the piece, with the treacherous (and larcenous) romance she pursues. As played by Kate Abbruzzese, she seemed like a kid unaware of the consequence of her youthful impulse, and thus all the more credible.

“Merchant” is classed as a comedy; even so, its built-in comic relief can be jarring. The servant Launcelot, who switches masters and bedevils his own dad, is a classic clown who invites overplaying, and Thomas Brazzle found no gesture or aside too outrageous too pursue, yanking us repeatedly from the reality of the play. Contrast that with work of Erick Avari, who played two unsuccessful suitors as well as the city’s Duke, and there’s a lesson in comic acting. Avari pushed the boundaries, too, but never to a breaking point.

There is one reality-busting, over-the-top gag in the play, however, that is so appropriate (and so hilarious) that even old saturnine I couldn’t stop laughing. You’ll know it when you see it.

It was a pleasure not to be transported to some high-concept location like Las Vegas, as happened five years ago in a Stratford production, and Tyler Kinney’s costumes were a handsome reinforcement of the period. 

We’re in a political climate where xenophobia is rampant and those of seeming intelligence reveal themselves to be bigots as horrible as any in Shakespeare’s time. Although this production probably would prove too subtle and insightful for their likes, it reminds the rest of us how important it remains to keep these subjects on the table – and abjure those who can’t see past the prejudiced noses on their own orange faces.

The Merchant of Venice
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Tina Packer
Shakespeare & Co., Lenox, Mass., July 14
(The production plays through August 21)

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