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Review: Shylock

No one is going to argue that Shakespeare wasn't the man when it comes to playwriting, but even his biggest fans have to wince a little when faced with some of The Bard's old-fashioned beliefs. Most modern productions of The Taming of the Shrew have Katherine indicating that she's just joking when she finally submits to Petruchio, and the monstrous Caliban of The Tempest is often played these days as a tragic victim of Prospero's hubris. Some sixteenth-century perceptions just don't jive with progressive twenty-first century sensibilities.

But perhaps no character from Shakespeare presents such challenges these days to actors and directors as Shylock, the villain from The Merchant of Venice. For those who don't know the play (both of you), Shylock is an evil moneylender. He's greedy. He's violent. He wants to cut a man's heart out. Not a nice guy at all. And his cruelty, in the play, is directly connected to his religion: Shylock is Jewish, and therefore the enemy of all decent people- in other words, Christians. So in an era when we still have some survivors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen to remind us of the horrible results of racism and hatred, such a violently anti-Semitic play isn't exactly easy to take. It's done, of course, and often successfully- the well-received movie version with Al Pacino is sufficient evidence of that. But how can we recognize the brilliance of the play while not accepting the cruel stereotyping of the main character?

I suggest Shylock, a new one-man play written and performed by Gareth Armstrong. In the play, Armstrong plays an actor who plays Tubal (Shylock's only friend in the script, with all of eight lines), narrating the story of Merchant while offering commentary on the history of the play, and the history of anti-Semitism itself. We learn about the various actors who have changed the public's interpretation of Shylock, taking him from cruel villain to tragically misunderstood victim over the centuries. We learn about the massacre of English Jews at York in 1190, and the subsequent expulsion of the few survivors. We learn about the creation of the ghetto in Venice, one of the few cities in Western Europe where Jews were (barely) tolerated. We learn about the history of the blood libel (the belief that Jews kill Christians for blood to bake into matzoh), and that Christian Poles were killing their Jewish neighbors as late as 1946 over this lie. We learn a lot of unpleasantries about the darker side of Western European history, a history of persecution and cruelty based upon willful ignorance.

Fortunately, we also learn about how attitudes towards Jews improved over the years, and how actors were able to change the public's opinion. While representative of real cultural attitudes, Merchant is, after all, still a play, and actors have the power to change any play by their participation. As they learned more about Jews and their cultural history, the many actors who played Shylock were able to incorporate their enlightenment into the play... and perhaps, enlighten audiences a little, too.

Jews and gentiles alike can appreciate not only a thorough examination of a classic play, but an examination of the culture that spawned the play, and how that culture grew. Armstrong's knowledge is fascinating, and his sense for turning history into entertainment is remarkable. Smoothly balancing humor and tragedy, Armstrong-the-writer makes the play, while emotionally wrenching at times, a joy to sit through. Armstrong-the-actor isn't too shabby, either, also walking the fine line of comedy and drama with great skill. When Armstrong demonstrates how some of the more famous interpreters of Shylock played the part, his versatility is so strong that it is easy to forget that there is only ever one man on the stage. (Or perhaps that's because, during the course of the evening, Armstrong plays almost every major character in Merchant... including Tubal.) One remarkable moment has Armstrong performing the famous "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech as Elizabethans would have seen it, wearing a red wig and a hook-nosed-mask, and speaking in a ridiculous falsetto voice. It would be impossible to take the character seriously played this way, which was entirely the point: Shylock was written to be a comic villain, someone easy for audiences to mock and hate. Midway through the speech, however, he drops wig, mask, and voice, and finishes the monologue in deadly serious earnest, making us suddenly sympathetic to Shylock's rage. It is a brilliant moment, one that leaps centuries of theatre in a split second, and reminds us of how powerfully an actor's interpretation can influence the audience's emotions.

Frank Barrie's intense direction keeps the pace of the evening flowing smoothly between history and play, and makes excellent use of the beautiful Perry Street Theatre. Russell Parkman's set is elegant and magically effective, keeping us grounded in a theatre while giving us glimpses of the real world that is and was. Simon Slater's incidental music sets the mood nicely.

For anyone who loves Shakespeare, for anyone who loves history, for anyone who loves stirring and powerful theatre, get thee to Shylock. Fascinating, infuriating, and funny, this play grabs hold of your heart and your mind and does not let go.

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From This Author Jena Tesse Fox

Jena Tesse Fox is a lifelong theatre addict who has worked as an actress, a singer, a playwright, a director, a lyricist, a librettist, and (read more...)