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‘Merchant’ In The Age Of Rancor

‘Merchant’ In The Age Of Rancor

Two productions hit here amid the politics of fear of ‘the other.’

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

One Shylock will be riding the subway from Washington Heights, and another just arrived from London, converging in New York City at a time when the issues of Shakespeare’s Venice seem very much alive here and abroad.

This month, New York hosts two productions of “The Merchant of Venice,” and an adaptation called “District Merchants” played earlier this summer in Washington, D.C. With the Republican and then Democratic national conventions getting underway, our national discourse is saddled with fear of “the other,” turning quickly to anger and intolerance, hatred and hypocrisy.

Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, is mocked and spat upon; he can be seen as both victim and tyrant as he insists that a debt be repaid with “a pound of flesh.” In a well-known line, he asks, “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes?” And, then: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

At the Lincoln Center Festival, now in its 20th anniversary season, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre makes its Lincoln Center debut with its production of “The Merchant of Venice” from July 20-24 ( Stage and screen actor Jonathan Pryce, who won a Tony for his role on Broadway in “Miss Saigon” and acclaim for his television roles in “Game of Thrones” and “Wolf Hall,” plays Shylock. His daughter Phoebe plays Jessica, Shylock’s daughter.

In a telephone interview, director Jonathan Munby explains that when they first went into rehearsals for the production in 2015, they collected news clippings of instances of anti-Semitism, and they quickly piled up.

“We were shocked. It seemed that this play, written 400 years ago, was absolutely about the here and now. Now, reflected in events happening in the last few weeks, it feels like it speaks directly to our times,” he said.

“Especially in relation to the decision in the U.K. to leave the European Union, based on a fear of immigration and fear of the alien other,” he added. He sees the rhetoric of the Trump campaign also guided by a fear of otherness. “I see this play as going beyond anti-Semitism.”

He’s excited to be presenting the play, written between 1596 and 1598, in New York, a city with such a large Jewish community. “It will feel very different from Liverpool, where we were last week. I’m very interested to see what the reaction will be.”

Among his additions to the play, which is considered one of Shakespeare’s comedies, is “a scene in antiquated Yiddish” with Shylock and Jessica.

“It’s important for me to get under the skin of the nature of their relationship,” Munby said. “It becomes her story, the psychological and emotional fallout as a result of the choices she makes.” He added, “You see her disintegration over the course of the evening.”

In preparing the scene, he had father and daughter improvise an argument, then transcribed it and had it translated into Yiddish.

“Her zikh eyn tsu mir, Jessica,” Shylock says. (Listen to me, Jessica).

Back in Venice, they may not have spoken Yiddish, but the scene gives them some private moments of connection.

He’s also very interested in Shylock’s ultimate conversion to Christianity, “which feels like a violent act, more violent than the cutting of flesh, to rob him of his identity.”

The play usually ends with a scene of happy couples, but that frustrated Munby. “There’s something going on back in Venice. I’ve subverted the end of the play.” He also includes Jessica singing a prayer about forgiveness.

The director changes the opening, too: In this production, the first scene features an anti-Semitic act front and center. When two Jewish men walk into a square where there’s a Venetian carnival, they are beaten up. “This racial abuse and prejudice sets the tone and atmosphere of the Venice we want to create. It’s a way to say to the audience: This is where we are.”

Based on conversations with Columbia University Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro, author of “Shakespeare and the Jews,” they added two details: Shylock wears a red hat, a rule imposed on Jewish men by Venetian authorities, along with a yellow circle on his brocade coat.

In an essay that appears in the program, Shapiro writes that there weren’t many Jews in Elizabethan England, that most of the couple of hundred present were of Spanish and Portuguese descent, having fled the Inquisition.

Munby spent considerable time talking to Rabbi Joseph Dweck, the senior rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Community of the U.K., “about the responsibility of taking this play on.”

Downtown, in the Clemente Parking Lot on Norfolk Street on the Lower East Side, the Drilling Company presents “The Merchant of Venice” from July 28-Aug. 13 (Thursdays-Saturdays, Their Venice suggests a modern Wall Street where money is an obsession. While the language is Shakespeare’s, messages are delivered via cellphone instead of messengers.

Actor David Marantz, associate artistic director of the Drilling Company, plays Shylock. In an interview on the Upper West Side, he said, “Being Jewish plays into how I play Shylock. I’m not religious at all, but I identify as being Jewish.” He sees connections between Jews and other disenfranchised communities around the world: “Even though Jews are very successful, there’s a history of being the other.”

“Nobody guesses that I’m Jewish, so slightly off-color anti-Semitic things are said around me. I identify with that otherness. It’s clear to me that Shakespeare was taking a trope of the time and injecting some humanity into it to see if people would get it. We see more humanity out of Shylock than the average Elizabethan might have seen.”

Marantz questioned whether they should do the play at all, with its ugliness, but then felt, quoting Hamlet, that you hold a mirror up to nature and see what happens. “People will either recognize it or not. We are not making a comment, just presenting it.”

“It’s not just anti-Semitism. It’s anti-everything. It’s Jews and Christians, blacks and whites, Americans versus anybody else.”

He will be dressed simply, in a sober suit and large yarmulke. The actor, also performing Off-Broadway in “A Class Act” at New World Stages, hopes the audience will see the pain that fuels Shylock’s need for revenge. “That’s what I’m working for.”

For Cary Mazer, a professor of theater arts and English at the University of Pennsylvania, the play is “always timely given the nature of our world. If you are referring to Black Lives Matter, and politicians sowing divisiveness, for their own advantage, then how can anything be more relevant?

“Whether it addresses those problems or inhabits those problems are two separate issues,” he said.

While he acknowledges that “The Merchant of Venice” has wonderful stuff in it, and that Shylock is a complex character with dramatic possibilities for actors, he said, “My problem is with the play, which is pretty hateful. Shylock appears in only five scenes and when he does, the work that the Christians in the play want him to do — like other villains and scapegoats when there’s no room for them — he’s kicked out and forgotten. The play is written from a Christian point of view. I just don’t think you can get beyond that.”

Mazer has completed an autobiographical play about a Jewish dramaturge working on a “Merchant of Venice” production, “Shylock’s Beard,” to debut in Chicago next month.

The professor shares the fact that “The Merchant of Venice” was the most performed Shakespeare comedy by the Third Reich.

Others who have played Shylock include Sir Laurence Olivier, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jacob Adler (in Yiddish), David Serero’s recent Sephardi adaptation and a retelling from Shylock’s point of view called “The Merchant” — Zero Mostel played the lead and died after the first performance in Philadelphia. Peter Sellars’ production, set in Venice Beach, Calif., alluded to deep racial divisions and the Rodney King riots. Last year’s production at the Royal Shakespeare Company featured Makran Khoury, the Israeli-Arab actor.

Pundits covering the political conventions might turn to the wise men of Venice: “You speak an infinite deal of nothing.”

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