Sunday, November 16, 2008

Not buying it

Thomas Garvey will be posting about Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s The Merchant of Venice, which we saw last night. I agree with him that there is much not to like in the production, from the eerie stillness of Antonio while the court hearing swirls around him to the near-complete excision of the play’s racism. The occasional background music is much weaker than I expected. The stunning two-level space at Midway Studios with massive columns below and 200 feet of wrap-around glass railing in the balcony is only used twice to good effect: the columns when Jessica is lolling around Portia’s estate and the glass railing when Launcelot is wrestling with his inner fiend and his conscience. Doug Lockwood’s Launcelot and Marianna Bassham’s Nerissa are the standout performances, with Launcelot dropped in from a comedy that includes unstrained and unrestrained humor and Nerissa straight out of Sex and the City.

Wow, a play obsessed with money and lending, done when our own financial and credit markets have collapsed: what could be more timely? And there’s plenty of stage business involving money changing hands, some that almost makes sense and some that just serves to distract. The problem is that this production loses all class distinctions; nothing is made of a wealthy prince and an indebted merchant being on equal footing in gambling for Portia’s hand. The servants do not act or dress like servants, and we can hardly keep track of which side characters have money and which do not. The constant and easy flow of cash on stage confuses claims of poverty, contradicts the rationale for Antonio borrowing from Shylock in the first place (and for not paying him back), and alienates the audience from the world of Belmont and Venice. We are, after all, living in a world where cash flow has been problematically reduced. The most charitable interpretation of this directorial choice is that the omnipresence of money actually reduces money’s salience and keeps the conflict centered on promises and contracts instead.

Of course, the show is actually about anti-Semitism, or so I keep hearing. Jeremiah Kissel’s Shylock, directed by Melia Bensussen, is a snarling raving parody of Shakespeare’s parody of his time’s anti-Semitism. He certainly brings a lot of energy to the role. And here is where I think the press attention to these two observant Jews choosing this particular portrayal of Shylock is rather overblown. How the audience responds to this multiply-removed depiction of The Jew reflects the audience’s inner world rather than Kissel’s, Bensussen’s, or Shakespeare’s. For myself, the anti-Semitism expressed in the play was muted by all of the characters being so unlikeable. Prejudice is, perhaps, less sharp when surrounded by prejudice and expressed by characters with so many other flaws as well. There is a mild shock of seeing Kissel embrace and enhance the worst of Shylock, just as there is a mild shock in seeing the photo of the enormous swastika painted on the Newton shul’s sign yesterday. But neither should be confused with a serious threat. The fact that Kissel’s performance is so over-the-top, and that the swastika was painted backwards, provides a comforting reassurance of that in both cases. It’s just not reasonable to take either one too seriously.

No comments: