CalShakes artistic director Jonathan Moscone is worried his new show will offend. So much so that the minute you start climbing the long, winding path to the Bruns Amphitheatre, a cherubic young woman hands you a Xeroxed letter where Moscone explains that sometimes theater can be a little scary and maybe even offensive, and that if you want to talk about what you're seeing on his stage, new online fora are being created for that very purpose. But darn it, he's staging that most contentious of Shakespeare's plays, The Merchant of Venice, anyway.
He needn't have worried. Sure, there's anti-Semitism and bigotry in Merchant, so much so that whole rafts of scholars and critics have dedicated their lives to explaining the historical and social context that birthed the play, by turns apologizing for and reviling Shakespeare. But the potentially offensive is so well integrated that the production becomes inconceivable without it.
Because all the wrangling about Shakespeare and anti-Semitism aside, Merchant was intended as a romantic comedy. A young man and a young woman overcome various obstacles notably debt and a dead father's wishes to find each other. Shylock probably wasn't meant to hold the central position; perhaps he was meant as nothing but a caricature who would have been funny to people who didn't know anything about Jews except that we drink Christian blood and poison the wells. But Shakespeare outdid himself in the writing of Shylock. Whether the playwright was sympathetic to Jews or not, the moneylender has some tremendous speeches, the kind actors would trade a pound of their fair flesh to deliver. So compounded with the modern discomfort among the children of Abraham, the play has come to be about Shylock, and it is often performed very seriously and ponderously by people who do not want to give offense. Director Daniel Fish (who, it should be noted, is a member of the tribe) has reframed the work so that it's more balanced and absurd. The potentially disastrous decision to make the show modern-dress works like a dream, and the result is a gutsy dose of stinging humor that flays bigotry, modern celebrity culture, and the obsession with money.
There are so many stereotypes being exploded here Bassanio dressing up as a black cat and approaching Portia as the prince of Morocco backed by music straight out of a blaxploitation flick being just one that whether Shakespeare was an anti-Semite or a philo-Semite or simply a reflection of his time becomes a completely superfluous question, and not half as interesting as what's going on right now on this stage. Is it really about love, or is it about money? When Bassanio speaks to Antonio of his love for Portia, he points up all her fiduciary qualities. Barely an interaction transpires where money doesn't change hands, and by play's end the stage is awash in crumpled cash.
That said, David Chandler does a tremendous job as Shylock. Vicious, yes; he is vengeful to the core and stonily unmoved by pleas for leniency. But we get a window into what has hardened him so. Remorseless, physically unpredictable, and vocally savage, his Shylock is still human, not the demon Jew of medieval Europe's long nightmare.
Yes, he's villainous. But then nobody here is angelic. Antonio, for all the pretty words Bassanio heaps upon him, is still sleazy. There's no ambiguity here about his feelings for Bassanio, either. Bassanio (assured and witty CalShakes newcomer Nick Westrate) is a profligate frat boy. Portia? Imagine Paris Hilton with something between her ears, at least until she cross-dresses as Balthasar, at which point Jenny Bacon seizes the stage, the audience, and a meaningful blast radius around Orinda; she's only grown stronger since her turn in Cymbeline. And Jessica, usually played as an innocent, here is a shallow bint whose apparent first move once she gets clear of her dad is to renounce her heritage by straightening her hair and trading her modest garb for the expensively tawdry style of a miniature Donatella Versace. As Cyndi Lauper put it, money changes everything.
There are small quibbles. Sometimes the use of video projections is amazing, especially when Fish uses it to lambaste the recent overwrought Al Pacino film version; sometimes it drags, which won't be an issue with the matinees, where the video won't be used. Elvy Yost as Jessica is a little flat compared to the rest of the cast, and her voice has a distracting wobble. The choice to double her up as the duke without so much as throwing a robe on her doesn't work half so well as doubling Bassanio as Portia's other suitors.
Andrew Lieberman's spare, dingy set and Micaela Neus' use of modern music will be immediately familiar to audiences who caught Fish's Measure for Measure. And once again he shows a hell of an eye for closing images; the final tableaux plays merry hell with Shakespeare's happily-ever-after tendencies. But on top of that, Fish is tapping into the ancient strain of self-deprecating Jewish humor. This may not have been his intent, but some of his Merchant almost plays as a joke that one Jew is telling others, from the drunken masqueraders singing "If I were a rich man" as they go to fetch Jessica to Shylock's Lenny Bruce moment.
If you see The Merchant of Venice just once in your life, this is the production to catch. And if you think you know Merchant, this one will make you think again.
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