Ethnic hatred lives in 'Venice'

Review: The current Washington production of `Merchant' openly addresses the anti-Semitism in Shakespeare's play.

June 02, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Whether you consider it a tragedy or a romantic comedy -- and in truth, it is a little of both -- Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" is a troubling play. It is to director Michael Kahn's credit that his current production at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre doesn't downplay the troubling aspects.

The play's theme of anti-Semitism looms large, and while Kahn makes it clear that, as a member of a scorned minority, Shylock is a victim, both the director and lead actor Hal Holbrook boldly reject political correctness by not softening the money-lender's nature.

Indeed, in the famous trial scene, when Shylock is demanding his pound of flesh from Antonio (Keith Baxter), the merchant of the play's title, Holbrook draws a circle on Baxter's chest and has the tip of his knife poised to pierce the merchant's skin when Portia (Enid Graham) says, "Tarry a little; there is something else." The scene is so graphic, you get the feeling that if Portia took one second more, it would be too late for Antonio.

Shylock's motivation is established, and heightened, by scenes of the injustices he and his fellow Jews are subjected to in bigoted Venice. After learning of his daughter Jessica's elopement with a Christian, Holbrook's Shylock appears in torn and dirty clothing, with a fresh scar next to one eye. A band of so-called Venetian gentlemen gang up on him, stopping only when two small Jewish boys come to Shylock's aid. (These Venetians apparently draw the line at beating up children). Subsequently, when Portia renders her judgment in the trial scene, a melee breaks out in the courtroom, with Shylock's elderly Jewish supporters being dragged across the floor.

So while Shylock may not be likable, his desire for revenge "by Christian example," is not without cause. This realization comes through despite Holbrook's use of an unfortunate accent -- Venetian-Yiddish? -- that obscures many of his lines, draining some of the effectiveness from his performance.

But if Holbrook's Shylock is disappointing at times, the same cannot be said of Baxter's Antonio, whose highly sympathetic portrayal of the melancholy merchant is yet another bold stab in the heart of political correctness.

Baxter makes it apparent that Antonio's Christianity runs as deep as Shylock's Jewishness. Kahn has inserted a few lines from Hebrew prayers into Shylock's most intense scenes; similarly, he has Baxter recite a Latin prayer when he is facing death. In the end, when Antonio insists Shylock convert to Christianity, there can be no doubt that he genuinely believes he is saving the money-lender's soul.

Kahn also chooses one of the more credible explanations for Antonio's devotion to young, handsome Bassanio, for whom the merchant puts his life on the line in securing a loan from Shylock. From his very first scene with Hank Stratton's Bassanio, Baxter subtly suggests that Antonio suffers from unrequited love; a mere touch from Bassanio leaves a pang of unexpressed longing on Baxter's face.

Except for Antonio and Bassanio, the male Venetian population is portrayed as a pretty reprehensible lot -- men who have little respect for anything other than their own self-indulgent pleasure.

In contrast, though you can't help wishing Graham's Portia was a more commanding presence -- particularly when she dons men's clothes for the trial -- the women are paragons.

In a play so consumed with the notion of oaths and the value of a man's word, it is the women whose appreciation of oaths is unassailable.

The one notable exception, Shylock's disloyal daughter Jessica, learns from her own, sad experience. As portrayed by Holbrook's real-life daughter, Eve Holbrook, Jessica shows quiet signs of regret, which seem to extend beyond her realization that she has married a bully. One of Kahn's most original touches is to transform the newlyweds' romantic exchange -- in which each begins a stanza with the words, "In such a night" -- into a mean-spirited game of one-upmanship.

Kahn and designers Ming Cho Lee (sets) and Martin Pakledinaz (costumes) keep the action in the original Renaissance time frame. This might seem a conservative choice for a production that takes a number of other risks, but it's also a wise choice. Four hundred years after Shakespeare wrote it, "The Merchant of Venice" is a play that needs no updating; a glance at the headlines is all it takes to remember that ethnic hatred is alive and festering.

`The Merchant of Venice'

Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St., N.W., Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays (except July 4); 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays (except May 30); and noon June 30. Through July 18

Tickets: $14-$56

Call: 202-547-1122

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