Monday, February 28, 2011


by James Karas

The citizens of Venice that Shakespeare shows us in The Merchant of Venice are generous, noble, decent, and loyal. They are the essence of humanity. They have one blind spot that would make you reconsider all those characteristics when viewing them from a different perspective. To say that they are anti-Semitic is to understate their virulent hatred of Jews. That hatred is so deeply rooted in every individual and in society as a whole that not one of these fine people seems capable of accepting Jews as human beings.

That is the disturbing and puzzling premise on which Shakespeare’s great play is based. Shylock, a Jew and the central character of the play, responds to that hatred in kind. He has enough humanity to ask if a Jew is not a person (“Hath not a Jew eyes?”) but he is the victim of intolerable abuse and humiliation and his response is to wreak revenge on one of his many abusers. Shylock’s message is that Jews are not worse than Christians but they are not better either.

Daniel Sullivan has directed a great production of the play starring Al Pacino and it just closed its run at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York. It is a production that leaves one emotionally exhausted as if this were the first time you had ever saw the play.

The extraordinary performance by Pacino is a part of the success of the production but Sullivan has done a number of imaginative things that raise the production above the stunning. During the trial scene, for example, Shylock is allowed to take his pound of flesh from Antonio (Byron Jennings). He takes out a sharp knife and a white handkerchief and is about to start carving up Antonio. At that moment Shylock stops. He cannot do what he has been demanding the right to do – take revenge on his tormentor. It is a phenomenal theatrical moment.

The “humane” Duke of Venice (Gerry Bamman) after humiliating Shylock orders him to become a Christian, the ultimate insult for a Jew who has maintained his faith in the diseased atmosphere of Venice. Here Sullivan adds a brief scene in which Shylock is baptized. He is led into a wading pool in front of a priest. His yarmulke is tossed from his head and his head is dunked into the water. He has become a Christian. The Christians leave the stage and Shylock’s Jewish friends rush in to give him a hand. He rises, finds his yarmulke and defiantly puts it on back on his head. It is a moment of triumphant humanity and defiance and an unforgettable coup de théatre.

And there is one more. Right after Shylock steps off the stage following his baptism, the scene changes to Belmont where Lorenzo (Thomas Michael Hammond) and Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Heather Lind) go on about how “in such a night” scenes from great love stories took place as the two lovers compare their relationship with mythical lovers. In this production, Jessica, who has denied her Jewishness and her father, steps in the same pool of water where her father was just humiliated.

At the end of the play she is shown sitting on the edge of the pool. She has been given a deed to her father’s fortune and she throws is in the water. Lorenzo puts his jacket around her shoulders and she does not toss it off. Her betrayal is complete.

The big love affair of The Merchant is, of course, the one between Portia (Lily Rabe) an heiress from Belmont and Bassanio (David Harbour). That love affair has a mirror image in the lower class relationship of Portia’s servant Nerissa (Marsha Stephanie Blake) and Bassanio’s servant Gratiano (David Aaron Baker). Their protestations of noble and eternal love result in naught, it seems. At the end of the play they walk off in different directions.

Pacino’s riveting performance and the stunning production as a whole does not mean that all the actors rose to the occasion. Rabe’s Portia sounded a bit nasal and did nothing for me. Jennings was an excellent Antonio as was the Harbour as Bassanio. The rest of the cast was at least competent and some were very good.

Christopher Fitzgerald was a funny Launcelot Gobbo, a comic character in a play that is not exactly made for laughs.

The set consists of black wrought-iron fences and they serve for the entire play. These people are all prisoners of their world and they cannot see beyond their hatreds. Shylock comes the closest, of course, but they are incapable of seeing what he sees, simply because he is a Jew.

A great night at the theatre.

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