Merchant of Venice is always a bitter pill for us Jews, even when the production is as good as the one at the Delacorte Theater featuring a cast led by Lily Rabe as the beautiful-as-she-is-wise Portia and Al Pacino. Well, if the payis and tsissis fit the droopy, beaked visage of Shylock, I say, wear them. An anti-Semite's dream, using the definition that a thing is anti-Semitic if it is more Jew hating than is mete, Merchant of Venice is that thing, but what should we do? Censor Shakespeare?
Indeed, I know not censorship. Much has been written about the pound of flesh, the 3000 ducats, perhaps most poignantly by Philip Roth in his 1993 novel Operation Shylock. The critics have been over the moon about the fine ensemble, ruminating on the relative merits of Pacino here vs. his Shylock in Michael Radford's 2004 movie.
So, what rankles us today in our bucolic Central Park? To start, the character of Antonio, ably played by Byron Jennings, is too well liked by his gentile consorts. How do we, the p.c. minded public and Jews alike, take his insult upon insult, his comfortable insistence that he would continue to insult Shylock, even if the Jew were to lend him the desperately needed ducats, with or without interest?
And what of justice: Shylock is more than derailed by the loss of his daughter Jessica (Heather Lind) to her Christian beau Lorenzo (Bill Heck). Must we witness his baptism too? Staged is the opening of a pool by which Shylock, head dunked, is stripped of yarmulke and identity. Here is Shakespeare's pre-figuration of a post-Holocaust problem: when is a Jew not a Jew? The last we see of Shylock, he is lumbering off into an unlit hole. The "does not a Jew bleed" scene, great as it is-with Pacino speaking it in a resigned softness-- does not sufficiently cover the racism. Shakespeare cannot seem to wrap his ample humanity around this character.
But here is where this staging, under the fine direction of Daniel Sullivan, opens a door: as all exit, Jessica alone in the brilliance of an unscripted image, hangs out by that pool: what is she thinking of her part in her father's demise? Leaving the theater, I overheard one viewer jest that a sequel is waiting to be written in which Lorenzo converts to Judaism.
The subject of Marriage is under scrutiny in "Merchant," and in another of Shakespeare's problem plays, The Winter's Tale, with which it shares the summer stage and most of the cast. In the darkly mercantile "Merchant," marriage is a transaction of good guessing, with loyalties played out in the fate of two gold rings. In The Winter's Tale, well directed by Michael Grief, a seriously wrong-headed monarch Leontes (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) dooms his wife Hermoine (Linda Emond) and friend Polixenes (Jesse L. Martin) accusing the innocent pair of adultery -- defying even the Oracle. You know there's trouble when the gods are called in.
And how do men know the ways of the gods? Those mysteries may be interpreted by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who stands out as Paulina, a woman of the court. This fine actress is good in "Merchant" too, as Portia's sidekick Nerissa, but in this play she is a bedazzling sorceress in magenta. You cheer for her as she gives those dumb rulers the what for.
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