Posted July 11, 2016 in Articles
Author: Steve Barnes
No words accompany the action in a heartbreaking moment in Shakespeare & Company's new "The Merchant of Venice," but the effect is wallopingly powerful: The great Shakespearean actor Jonathan Epstein, playing his final scene as Shylock, in a top-notch production directed by company founder Tina Packer, realizes how thoroughly defeated he's been in the Venetian court, to the point of being ordered to renounce his Jewishness. He hurls his yarmulke from his head and tears the tassled tallit katan from beneath his shirt.
It's fitting that the moment is silent, because, as rightfully acclaimed as Epstein is in delivering Shakespeare's words — and he's mightily good here as Shylock, returning to a role he last played nearly 20 years ago in Lenox — he's also an actor with such clarity of emotion that he often need say nothing. It's all visible in Shylock's face and in his bearing, from the accumulated hatred from decades of living in a viciously antisemitic society to the minutes-old humiliation of having, in Packer's in-the-round staging, epithets (and saliva) spat at him from all directions.
Bigotry of many forms is writ large in this production, beautifully conceived and executed by Packer, her directorial associates, cast and design team. "We're really going for it here — the racism, sexism, antisemitism," Packer told the audience before Sunday's opening. "I told them not to hold back on any of it." More than once a member of the ensemble shouts at Shylock, "Because you're a Jew," the word dripping with disgust.
In Packer's production, the cultural sexism is painful, the racial bias results in a minstrel-show caricature, and homophobia is manifest, too, with more than a hint that Shylock's determination to extract his literal pound of flesh from someone who owes him money is because the man, Antonio (John Hadden), as evident from his tender scenes with Bassanio (Shahar Isaac), is a homosexual and thus someone on whom Shylock can dump some of the vilification that's been rolled down on him for so long.
Packer acknowledged that finding the right balance and tone for "The Merchant of Venice" is difficult. "It's a comedy, except that it's not a comedy. It's a tragedy mixed with a comedy mixed with a tragedy," she said. Many parts of the production are laugh-out-loud funny, but, always, beneath and behind them, are more difficult and painful feelings. Even as Portia (the excellent Tamara Hickey) is comically beside herself with excitement as Bassanio tries to win her hand in marriage by choosing from among three boxes, as per the terms of her father's will, there's something repellent about a woman reduced to such a circumstance.
The production, being staged in the Tina Packer Playhouse, has almost no set, with necessary pieces brought on and off as appropriate to each scene. More permanent and evocatively effective from designer Kris Stone are 12 clear globes of different sizes that hang above the playing space. They contain items such as a party mask, a castle, gold wire, structures that look like DNA or the interior of an atom — from the whole world to its tiniest component. The cast, dressed in flashy, period-suggestive costumes by Tyler Kinney, is encouraged by Packer to an exuberant level of performance, never more so than Erick Avari, returning to Shakespeare & Company after 35 years, playing both of a perfectly ridiculous pair of suitors for Portia.
If there's a part of the play Packer hasn't solved, it's the lighter business that follows Shylock's humiliation in court. After such a heavy scene, it feels tedious to spend nearly 30 more minutes wrapping up insignificances about who was whom during periods of cross-dressing and the exchanging and returning of wedding rings. You know it has to be done, because otherwise matters would be left unresolved. Anyway, this is at least in part a romantic comedy, but emotionally you're still back there with Shylock, frozen in a courtroom hung heavy with history and hatred.