Theater Review: At Shakespeare & Company — Tina Packer’s Masterful “Merchant of Venice”

Shakespeare & Company’s staging of Merchant of Venice is the strongest this critic has ever seen or could hope to.

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. Directed by Tina Packer. Presented by Shakespeare & Company Lenox, MA, through August 21.

Jonathan Epstein as Shylock in the Shakespeare and Company production of "The Merchant of Venice." Photo: Ava G. Lindenmaier.

Jonathan Epstein as Shylock in the Shakespeare and Company production of “The Merchant of Venice.” Photo: Ava G. Lindenmaier.

By Ian Thal

Productions of The Merchant of Venice usually acknowledge that contemporary anti-Semitic stereotypes draw their inspiration from the character of Shylock. The inevitable efforts to “redeem” Shakespeare from charges that he was proselytizing for the prejudice often fall flat, particularly when updates are tossed in, such as setting the action in the Wall Street of today, etc. And then there are the over-stuffed attempts to make the play’s anti-Semitism a metaphor for other hatreds. Wisely, director Tina Packer doesn’t take either course, plunging this production (minus a few anachronisms) squarely in the Venice of the late sixteenth-century. A crucifix painted on the stage floor partially obscures Hebrew writing; the graffiti suggests the idea that the New Testament has supplanted the Old Testament. (The visual intimates that the Jews represent a lost remnant rather than a living tradition.) In addition, the image of Hebrew writing inscribed inside a pentangle reflects Christian folklore that associated Jews with diabolism and the occult — it is a valuable reminder that when Shakespeare’s Christian characters liken Shylock to the Devil, they aren’t simply hurling insults. They are talking theology.

Shakespeare was not your standard liberal making a plea for tolerance, but he is strangely contemporary. Donald Trump (or his campaign surrogates) are reposting anti-Semitic and white-supremacist memes on social media. Ironically, even the Republican nominee’s admiring statements about Jews are along the lines of “The only kind of people I want counting my money are little short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.” Meanwhile, across the pond, where Howard Jacobson based his recent novel Shylock Is My Name, the left-wing Labour Party has been caught up in an anti-Semitism row for months now, with a number of officials close to party leader Jeremy Corbyn being suspended. When Corbyn lost a vote of no-confidence by 172-40, his supporters naturally blamed a Zionist plot.

Refreshingly, Packer does not attempt to redeem the anti-Semitic thrust of Shakespeare’s text, nor does she merely unapologetically stage the bigotry of the Christian characters. She comments on it from the margins. Michael Fuchs’ Tubal is given more prominence than usual as Shylock’s confidante and conscience – urging Shylock (Jonathan Epstein) not to pursue his plans for revenge even as he sympathizes with him for the indignities he has had to endure. Shylock’s humiliations are undoubtedly connected with his being a Jew. But neither Venice’s Jewish community nor Judaism support his murderous plot to destroy his tormentor. (Ironically, Shylock’s ‘blood’ feud fits with the stereotypes that ran through popular literature in Christian Europe.) The savage divide between Christian and Jew is given a powerful theatrical presence in this production. For instance, Christian listeners recoil when Shylock makes his “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. It is as if the notion that they should have empathy for a Jew offends them to the core of their being. And that is well before he vows to avenge unjust treatment. More crucial, this Shylock is allowed to be Jewish: he speaks not of Jacob and Abraham, but of Yaakov and Avraham. After his final defeat in the Doge’s court he can be heard, off stage, chanting Kol Nidre – an Aramaic petition to God to be released from vows – presumably that of his forced conversion.

Epstein’s Shylock is an intelligent man whose ungoverned passions are his undoing. It’s his love for his daughter (not his sense that she is his possession) that makes her betrayal so deeply painful. It’s the vicious conspiracy to rob his home and the beatings he endures that bring him to a court where he knows he has no genuine chance of winning. When he holds the curved blade to Antonio’s flesh there’s a revelatory sense of helplessness, a realization that his rage had brought him to this dehumanizing point. Jonathan Croy’s fight choreography adds compelling verisimilitude to this primal scene.

John Hadden’s Antonio lets go of his love for Bassanio (Shahar Isaac) with wistful melancholia. This is a rare production of Merchant that does not shy away from the text’s obvious homoeroticism. Indeed, Antonio starts the play in a cuddle puddle with Solonio, Salarino, and Salerio (Peter Andersen, Cloteal L. Home, and Dylan Wittrock). He is also bullying and self-assured in his expression of hatred for Shylock at their first meeting, then becomes sheepishly vulnerable when, stripped of his doublet, he bares his chest to give his pound of flesh.

Tamara Hickey (Portia) and Bella Merlin (Nerissa) exhibit the fast wit that makes these actors well suited both as mistress and maid and in their masquerade as the judge and his clerk. Erick Avari is hilarious as the foolish suitors from Morocco and Aragon. Thomas Brazzle shines as Launcelot; terrific when he is monologuing, in a comic scene with Old Gobbo (Fuchs, again) or — in a scene rarely played for the drama we see here — on the losing side of a confrontation with Lorenzo (Deaon Griffin-Pressley). Isaac and Griffen-Pressley accomplish the rare feat of making Bassanio and Lorenzo substantial figures rather than supporting tag-alongs. Jason Asprey comes up with a refreshingly explosive Graziano, a charismatic Pythagoras-quoting skinhead.

Tyler Kinney gives a nod to Venice’s role as a center of the Mediterranean fabric trade by dressing his upper class characters in rich velvets and silks. Yet even the coarser garb of the lower class characters make use of vibrant tertiary colors. Most important, he displays the cosmopolitan nature of Venice; both trade and diplomatic delegations from other parts of Europe as well as the Ottoman Empire shuttle across the stage during scene transitions. The ornate costumes of the power elite are juxtaposed with the obscenely exaggerated costumes worn by the masquers on the night that Jessica is stolen away. (Movement director Kristen Wold deserves hefty credit for the effectiveness of the many, often wordless, interludes in the staging.)

Kris Stone’s set, which includes the aforementioned striking floor design, represents the Arcadian dream of Portia’s Belmont with glowing globes suspended from the heavens. She makes some admirable additions to the mise-en-scène of trade on the Rialto — it is festooned with small tables where deals are negotiated over balance scales and abacuses.

Tina Packer’s deep understanding of Shakespeare’s original text, reinforced by the superb contributions of her collaborators, has resulted in a production of a ‘problem’ play that works on every level — it is strongest Merchant of Venice this critic has ever seen or could hope to.

Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.

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