Shakespeare and Director Glenn Havlan Pull No Punches
by Kim Waldron
Theater of Others’ “Merchant of Venice” refuses to downplay the bigotry of Shakespeare’s most appealing and sympathetic characters. We see all their complexity and contradictions. Antonio–even though he is a generous friend to all–barely disguises his bigotry. The brilliant, fun-loving, and gutsy Portia snubs Jews socially and is heartless in the climactic court case. Antonio’s friends, so sincere and supportive, sit in the audience with us and shout horrible things at Shylock, the Jewish money lender. As in life, people are complicated.
The action takes place in “a twisted near future,” which as Director Glenn Havlan notes in the program is “now more likely than it was when we began to plan this production.” Theater of Others bends tradition by casting African-American actors in the Jewish roles: the money-lender Shylock, his alienated daughter Jessica, and his friend Tubal. Color-blind casting is generally intended to make Shakespeare more accessible; here it makes the bigotry inescapably closer to home.
Shylock (a magnificent Federico Edwards) flawlessly captures the fury of the money lender against the Christian businessmen who spit on him. Edwards skillfully portrays Shylock’s greed and his desire for vengeance, as well as his pain as the persecuted Other. He masters Shylock’s vacillations between wild passion and hard logic.
The device of African-Americans in the role of the Jewish characters works, powerfully. Although it rings a trifle odd the first time a Black man refers to himself as a Hebrew, Shylock dresses so differently and is so commanding that he quickly becomes real. Otherness is established doubly. When the gracious Portia’s snubs Shylock’s daughter Jessica (a down to earth Krista White) as a Jew, she makes us shudder twice. Shylock claims he has the right to act against Antonio, who owes him a large debt, just as the Christians have rights over their bought and sold slaves. With an African-American Shylock speaking, the words have never been more chilling:
What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?
You have among you many a purchased slave,
Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules,
You use in abject and in slavish parts,
Because you bought them. Shall I say to you,
“Let them be free! … (4.1.89-94)
. . . You will answer,
“The slaves are ours.” So do I answer you.
The pound of flesh which I demand of him
Is dearly bought. ‘Tis mine and I will have it. (4.1.97-100)
These words about slavery, spoken by Federico Edwards, a powerful Black actor, strike a harsh American note.
When Portia (a dynamic Gaby Schneider) enters, she captures contradictory moods. She is mischievous with her unwanted suitors and romantic with her true love, Bassanio (a sincere Abdulrahim Harara). Portia, casually condescending to the Jewish Jessica, is cruelly unrelenting when she disguises herself as a Doctor of Law in the courthouse. Her answer to Shylock’s demand for “a pound of flesh” is brilliant and brutal.
When Shylock’s servant, the clown Lancelot Gobbo (a fast-talking John Frediani) debates with himself about running away, he provides us with delightful comic relief. The cast is energetic and committed: Courtney Anne Russell’s Salario stands out, as she flippantly lampoons Shylock lamenting his losses.
The court, where Shylock seeks justice, instead demonstrates how prejudice furnishes profit for those who rule, Antonio and the Duke. The supposedly generous Antonio (Eric Nelson), dangerously in debt to Shylock, goes along with the abuse of the Other by a biased legal system. Antonio’s friends at court, sitting in the audience with us, cry out against the “Jew” during the trial, making us angry and outraged at their public hatred.
Portia is so strong and smart (we like her for that before we see any bigotry) that it hurts when she cheerfully, with moony eyes, offers up her independence and her wealth to her fiancé. Sure, she plots for control in the relationship though the machinations of a lost ring, but the words of surrender coming from her lips hurt every time I hear them. This is what every teen age girl was told when I was youg:
… her gentle spirit
Commits itself to yours to be directed,
As from her lord, her governor, her king.
Myself, and what is mine, to you and yours
Is now converted: but now I was the lord
Of this fair mansion, master of my servants,
Queen o’er myself; and even now, but now
This house, these servants and this same myself
Are yours my lord… (3.2. 165-175)
The play’s end evokes painful feelings with its ambiguous ending: happy, charming couples celebrate their love just after the humiliation of Shylock. Portia’s disappointed suitors (delightful, campy Anthony Cohen, Greg Gutting, and Heren Patel) keep the merriment going, even as the romance hurtles toward a surprise ending.
Theater of Other’s dark comedy ends with the degradation of a Black Shylock. Antonio and his business school buddies persist in their hypocrisy. We are left to sift truth from prejudice. Perhaps for injustice to end, more of us need to start acting up.
“The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare, directed by Glenn Havlan, by Theater of Others, at Kelly Cullen Community Auditorium, San Francisco, plays through Sunday, April 2, 2017. All performances are pay what you will. Info: to-sf.org
Cast: Tracy Baxter, Marc Berman, Nick Chapman, Anthony Cohen, Beau Dream, Federico Edwards, John Frediani, Greg Gutting, Abdulrahim Harara, Shannon Alane Harger, Eric Nelson, Heren Patel, Courtney Anne Russell, Gaby Schneider, Krista White, and Ian Wilcox.
For more plays, check Theatrius: Now Playing.