Anyone who maligns Jewish people in Germany and Austria today goes to jail, except for Shakespeare.
Depending on the Zeitgeist, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE has been used to stoke anti-Semitic feelings in theater-goers for centuries. In its worst form, this controversial Shakespeare play got full support from the Nazi cultural establishment, under the condition that the wedding of the Jewish daughter with her Christian husband had to be cut out as marriages between Jews and “Aryans” were not allowed.
Many theatres in our own time have struggled with the blatant anti-Semitism in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. As a result, quite a few directors have cut some of the most hateful lines so as not to offend post-Holocaust audiences too much. Given our diet-conscious times, “Anti-Semitism LIGHT” seems to be the guiding principle for many a theatre company that does not want to offend too many audience members with an Elizabethan, hate-filled play.
We are therefore treated to an almost lovable Shylock, portrayed as an elderly man, who has been wronged, and who, out of self-defense, insists that justice gets done. In many productions, we witness moments of silence at the end where we see Shylock, the rich, old Jew, now poor and without his daughter, owning nothing but his silken yarmulke, walking into the sunset, deep in thought.
No such padding, no such cutting, no such sugar-coating by Philadelphia’s youngest company, the Quintessence Theatre Group. On the contrary, we are exposed to an Elizabethan play that hits us in the face with its vicious anti-Semitic onslaught, goading and cajoling, badgering and bullying the money-lender, trying to trip Shylock, simply because he happens to be Jewish.
Alexander Burns, the courageous director, and his cast of some of the best actors for miles, went all out to let us see the hatred, the in-your-face, in-your-race, in-your-religion nastiness of Christians who tried to torment the money-lender of Venice into submission. As if that were not enough, we saw a schadenfreude, rarely portrayed on stage as powerfully as in this production with an ending that was as unexpected as that of many of the other surprises of this production.
SHYLOCK AND ANTONIO
Jews in the Middle Ages were forbidden from entering most professions and guilds. To survive, a number of Jews became money lenders and bankers, professions that were forbidden by law to Christians who looked down upon money lending as a sin, even though societies needed a free flow of money. As a result, Jews got branded as usurers and cutthroats, rather than as people who were supporting the rapidly growing import and export of goods worldwide.
Shakespeare placed Antonio (played convincingly by Josh Carpenter), the wealthy Christian merchant, and Shylock, the wealthy Jewish money-lender (played powerfully by Benim Foster), at the center of his most controversial play, bringing them within an inch of a cold blade, cutting out the heart of the abuser and the satisfaction of the abused, even though both would end up as losers.
One of the most powerful scenes took place when Antonio took off his clothes and, bare-chested, slowly climbed on top of a large desk as if he were a dead man walking, ready to become a corpse to be dissected. Antonio looked almost like the corpse in Rembrandt’s famous 1632 painting with Dr. Tulp, who was holding up a knife to open up the body of an executed criminal, giving his anatomy lecture to medical professionals at the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons. In those days, only one public dissection a year was permitted, and the body had to be that of an executed criminal. Those dissections took place “in lecture rooms that were actual theatres, with students, colleagues and the general public being permitted to attend” (WahooArt).
Some theatres have gone where most directors dare not tread, including the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, by presenting a bare-chested Antonio with the knife of Shylock on his chest. However, few companies like the Quintessence Theatre Group have come as close to the Rembrandt-like scene with Antonio flat on his back, almost a corpse—all in the presence of the entire Venetian court, with Shylock approaching like Dr. Tulp, holding a huge knife in his hands, ready to cut out the promised pound of flesh.
This naked determination for physical justice, against the background of years of having been bullied, maligned, and treated like a criminal, was a scene so direct that it was painful to watch.
Josh Carpenter, as the intelligent, successful, proud, but also vicious Antonio, risen from the almost-dead, shared with me afterwards, that “dual reality is part of what makes theatre so powerful. The tension and hate that the audience witnesses between the characters exists because of the cooperation, trust, and work of the actors. Whatever the scene may be, whatever our conflicts in life may be, we are all still human beings. The question is whether we can remember and respect that fact or not.”
The pressure which had built up over the course of the evening, the hounding down of Shylock and the new injustices he suffered at the hands of even otherwise delightful people like Portia (played beautifully and seductively by Jessica Dal Canton) all lead to the total isolation of Shylock. He was played not by an old man, but by the successful, tall, and bronze-colored Benim Foster, who had grown a head full of rich, curly hair, which made him stand out, even though he wore the same elegant type of suit as the other Venetians.
INSIDE SHYLOCK’S HEAD AND HEART
In an interview with Benim Foster (Shylock), I asked him three questions, one for each of the little boxes with which we are faced in the theatre: What did you feel and think as (1) Shylock, the money-making and much maligned money-lender of Venice, (2) Benim Foster, the actor, and (3) Benim, the man who happens to be Jewish?
Foster allowed me deep into the head and heart of his money-lender of Venice, and made a number of important observations and some astounding admissions:
“THE MERCHANT OF VENICE has always been a mystery to me. Something I feared. I avoided it, believing that it would just upset me too much, being Jewish. I also struggled with the thought of Shakespeare, himself, being an Anti-Semite. However, I have come to believe that he was just the opposite. He gives Shylock so much depth, so much humanity, love, pain, beauty and grief, plus his anger, stubbornness, and impatience that he shows us Shylock as human.”
“Shylock is a widowed father and a successful businessman who has found a way to thrive through the abuse from everyone around him. He is so blinded by his hurt, his heartbreak, his loss, his abuse, that he is out for revenge at all costs. Shylock struggles with giving over to compassion and mercy, given his current situation.”
SHYLOCK ACTOR LONELY AND ISOLATED ON STAGE
“Shylock needs to be portrayed as someone we can feel compassion for and connect with on a human level. However, what has been incredibly challenging, and sometimes painful, is how isolated I have felt during this process. Shylock is a character who is alone. It's Shylock against the world.”
“That experience has affected me greatly. It is because of this abuse, out of this pain, that I can deliver a Shylock who is broken, in pain, devastated and in mourning over the loss of his daughter and suffering from the onslaught of hatred and anti-Semitism that has been with him his entire life. I understand this.”
“BEFORE AND AFTER EACH PERFORMANCE, WE ALL HUG EACH OTHER”
“I know that there is a lifetime, for me, and thousands of years of anti-Semitism, hatred and simply disgust toward Jews. This play shows that we are all human. However ugly, however beautiful, we are all flawed. But we are all the same. One of the reasons this play is so painful to watch, is that it reveals the kind of prejudice and racism that exists today. You don't have to be Jewish to be disturbed, and to empathize with Shylock, by the onslaught of verbal, emotional and physical abuse he receives.”
“What is so wonderful about this cast, is how much we love and respect each other. We put it all out there on stage, the hatred, the disgust, the anger, the revenge and the love. We allow it to be a safe place to play, to feel, to express, to just simply and honestly tell our story. Most importantly, before and after every performance we make sure to give each other lots of love and hugs and support. We need it.”
“SHYLOCK TO ME IS THE MOST HUMAN OF SHAKESPEARE’S CHARACTERS”
Alexander Burns, the young and innovative director, presents one classical play after another, often running in tandem with performances on alternating nights, in this case Goldoni’s entertaining VENETIAN TWINS, contrasting with the darkness of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. Ultimately, a purist who centers his work on the text, Burns shared with me that he never feels at risk when staging Shakespeare.
“Shakespeare's theatre is created solely through the actor and the spoken word. It is the language that unleashes the passion, the despair and the hate, just like a great piece of music. To feel the heartbeat of these words and these characters 400 years after they were born is the great gift of classical theater.”
“I think it is easier to dismiss THE MERCHANT OF VENICE as anti-Semitic, than it is to fully consider the complexity of Shakespeare's play. Of all of Shakespeare's abused or disenfranchised characters who are either destroyed or humiliated at the conclusion of the play, there is none with whom I sympathize more than Shylock. To me he is the most human.”
“SURPRISED WHEN OUR EMPATHY FOLLOWS SHYLOCK OUT THE COURTROOM DOOR”
Looking at this original production of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE was like looking through a kaleidoscope: It started with the men of Venice, dressed in Armani suits as if they had stepped out of GQ Magazine, projecting power and self-confidence that comes from the combination of feeling cocksure about themselves, demonstrated to the world through the finest clothing, the latest fashion, and a use of language, gestures, and body language that demands attention.
The magnetic Alexander Harvey playing Lancelot, brought down the house with Shakespeare, done in an Appalachian accent, and with an exuberance, combined with stealthy nuances, that contributed much appreciated comic relief to this dark and ambivalent play. As an actor who trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and the Bristol Old Vic, he shared his experience with Shakespeare’s language: "If I had to pick one lesson I've learned that's helped me consistently, it is the day I learned that Shakespeare's words are to be tasted, relished, explored, eaten, and that when you let them, they are open windows for your deepest self into the outside world.”
Speaking of Lancelot's relationship to anti-Semitism, Harvey considered it “an especially tricky thing, because the character ultimately means well. He simply doesn't know any better. The unwavering certainty of the infallibility of one's religion and its creeds always breeds some kind of hatred and judgment. However, just when that majority of racial hate seems to overwhelm us, you suddenly sense Shakespeare's mirror slyly lifting up and shining right into the eyes of anti-Semitism: our alliances to ‘the Christian’ and ‘the Jew’ slide so imperceptibly that we are suddenly surprised when our empathy follows Shylock out the courtroom door.”
EROTIC FLASH-MOBS, RELIEF FROM TENSION
With another turn of the kaleidoscope, the lights go out at the old Sedgwick Theater in Philadelphia to transform the stage into a surreal ball. Deeply sensual dances flash by with images of highly eroticized dancers—a modern flash-mob, Commedia dell’Arte style—wearing beaked masks like vultures, high on meth, ravenous for a living corpse. Shylock walks around, lonely and lost as if he had entered the halls of Kafka’s Castle. Like K, he has no chance to fight against the system that excludes him, even at the masked ball.
Within seconds, the flash-mob of backstabbers and goaders (a choreography infused with great seduction by Kaki Burns) disappears, and life seems to return to normal with the contemporary Venetians walking around proudly in expensive Italian suits. Scene after scene holds us spellbound, including the ones with Portia, dressed in an ambiguous style, both modest and provocative (designed by Jane Casanave).
The impressive Alexander Burns created an ensemble that risked more than one would expect and pulled it off magnificently, including the young and energetic Daniel Fredrick as Gratiano, J. Center as Old Gobbo and the stern Duke, Kris Davis as Lorenzo and the handsome Prince of Morroco, Leslie Nevon Holden as the lively Nerissa, Bethany Ditnes as Shylock’s run-away daughter, Sean Bradley as the love-struck Bassanio, Sean Close as the dashing Salerio, and Ken Sandberg as the lewdly entertaining Stephano.
The whole production is supported by Bryce Page's sound, and David A. Sexton’s lighting, which changes from deeply sensual to a brutal glare that one would only expect at an execution.
SURPRISE ENDING, SURPRISE INSIGHTS
This unadulterated presentation of Shakespeare’s play created tremendous tension in the audience which built up exponentially. Yet, because of the superb directing and acting of the ensemble, two and a half hours flew by faster than any MERCHANT OF VENICE that I had ever seen.
I do not want to give away the ending which occurs after the traditional dance, but I can reveal that the shift surprised most of us in powerful ways. I was fighting tears of joy. Going by the number of people who were wiping their eyes, clearly that very last scene with its unexpected change of pace and music brought us all together, irrespective of our ethnicities, religious beliefs, and external circumstances—Antonios and Shylocks, all of us.