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In DER KAUFMANN, 'Art Can Torture'

In DER KAUFMANN, 'Art Can Torture'Manila, Philippines, October 19, 2013--Closing this weekend is Tanghalang Pilipino's brilliantly crafted retelling of William Shakespeare's "Der Kaufmann" ("The Merchant of Venice").

One of Shakespeare's best and famous comedies, "The Merchant of Venice," which tells the story of an enigmatic female lead (Portia) who outwits a bitter and shrewd moneylender (Shylock), had often been seen as a delightfully appealing theatrical piece until now.

"It was Rody [Vera] who came up with the idea of setting 'The Merchant of Venice' during World War II," Tuxqs Rutaquio recalled. "It was first discussed during one of our summer workshops where we were analyzing the Bard's work in this play."

In this production, directors Rutaquio and Vera present "The Merchant of Venice" for what it really is: An anti-Semitic play that eventually becomes more of a critical comedy, which "reform[s] by holding up a mirror to unsocial behavior." (Barnett, Sylvan,"Types of Drama")

In this production, both directors have decided to show what truly corrupts people and institutions aside from the play's underlying themes of racism, intolerance, and unbridled prejudice.

"Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice' is his most racist play," Rutaqio said. "In this version, both Rody and I decided to attack the material differently but still using Rolando Tinio's Filipino translation."

In a previous interview, Vera added that, "Using Jews who are portraying Jews was one way where racism was emphasized. There were actual historical accounts revealing that the Nazis did produce 'The Merchant of Venice' with Nazis playing leads and Jewish prisoners playing Shylock."

Rutaquio and Vera, backed up with strong dramaturgical references, have created a play within a play and set it in a claustrophobic Nazi concentration camp where the audience members witness for themselves the intolerance and horrors of one of history's darkest moments. Rutaquio further elaborated that they have also created a multiple world of outcasts: Shylock, a family of Jews, Jessica--a prostitute, and Antonio--a gay man.

Shylock, often portrayed as a comical character who is ridiculed and reviled, is presented in a way that draws the audience's sympathy. Through the centuries, Shylock reflects how much Jews were poked fun at--in general. In this new version, however, the directors turn the tables and nobody dares to look at Shylock the same way again.

Aside from Shylock, the audience members also get to witness the intolerance towards the Jews as Jessica, a prostitute, is thrust to play a headstrong, hateful, and often bewildered character. In the story, she detests living in her father's household and elopes with a young Christian named Lorenzo. Here, Jessica continuously battles for her salvation despite having converted to Christianity.

Vera also added that during the holocaust, Hitler, through the Third Reich, wanted to preserve and perfect the Aryan race not just by exterminating the Jews but also by torturing gay men who wore pink triangle badges that labeled them as homosexuals.

While there are light moments in the play, the audience members are still gripped with fear for two restless hours in the theater mainly due to Rutaquio and Vera's horrifying introspective look at how this play can be presented differently.

While it can teach and pique people's interest, "Art can also torture," Rutaquio pointed out.

Photo by Tanghalang Pilipino

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