St. Louis University has opened a strong production of The Merchant of Venice. This play, of course, features that most controversial of Shakespeare's characters -- Shylock, the moneylending Jew of Venice who demands his "pound of flesh" in payment from the luckless Antonio.
What sort of play is this? To Shakespeare and his audience it was a comedy. After all there are women disguised as men, there are no fewer than three marriages and there's not a death at all! And yet we are early-on seduced into sympathy with the supposed villain of the piece. With the famous "Have we not eyes" speech Shakespeare commands our sympathy for Shylock. At the play's climactic courtroom scene we are deeply moved by the anguish of Shylock when the revenge for which he lusts suddenly (and really through trickery) becomes humiliating defeat. He is not only crushed, but he is mocked by these Christians who so blithely banter about "mercy".
This SLU production at the Marcelle Theatre is presented in an "alley" format, with audience on both sides of the performance space. Designer Jim Burwinkel gives us an attractively spare set with at one end the entrance to Shylock's home and at the other a kind of bridge that also serves as the courtroom dais. At center is a small sort of wishing-well.
In the very brisk opening we find ourselves in modern Venice at Carnival time. Players in festive masks roister about. Costumer Lou Bird gives the cast a high-fashion, GQ sort of style -- the men in snugly-fitted stylish jackets, tight pants, snappy hats, no socks. Sometimes this works but sometimes not; Bassanio, for instance, has pant-legs and sleeves just a bit too short -- giving the impression of a growing adolescent boy. And in the courtroom scene the two ladies-disguised-as-men wear proper conservative business suits, but on their feet we see clunky tan almost-boots in which no classy Italian lawyer would be caught dead. But overall the costumes are stylish and bright and work well in this time-shifted concept.
Director Gary Wayne Barker draws fine performances from his student cast. I've seen most of these actors on stage in the past few seasons. One of the delightful things about attending university theater is watching young talent grow and fledge its wings in contrasting roles.
Antonio, who co-signs the ill-fated loan from Shylock, is played beautifully by Dylan Norris; he shows the same simple honesty and ownership of lines that he gave us as the Sherriff in Bus Stop three years ago. He is quite believably stoic as he bares his bosom to yield his pound of flesh to Shylock's knife.
Blake Howard plays Bassanio on whose behalf the loan was taken out. There's a charming sincere innocence in Howard's performance. Lean and long-limbed -- and with a little too much wrist and ankle showing -- he carries just a hint of Pinocchio -- or of Pee-wee Herman. A lovely job.
But the play really belongs to Shylock and Portia.
Zack Bakouris takes on the challenging role of Shylock and he shines in it. Shylock has moments of great melodramatic rage, and it seems almost cruel to deny an actor the flowing robes which would serve so well in such tirades. But Bakouris, though constrained to a simple business suit, carries it off well.
Katie Schoenfeld does excellent work as Portia, smartly navigating the courtroom scene and having much fun in the missing-rings trick that she and Nerissa play on their husbands.
Jakob Hulten fills Gratiano with sprightly energy; he's so physically articulate. Sarah Richardson gives Nerissa intelligence and charm. Carlee Cosper is a beautiful and sympathetic Jessica (Shylock's eloping daughter). Jimmy Bernatowicz does lovely comic work as the clownish servant Launcelot Gobbo. Other supporting roles are ably played by Quincy Shenk, Haley Dirkes-Jacks, Molly Meyer, Rebecca Maneikis, Andre Eslamian, Caleb Vetter and Laurel Button.
Diction is generally fine and there is never any doubt that actors really understand their lines. Yet, as in almost all productions of Shakespeare, sometimes an actor allows himself to be simply text-driven. Too often, once astride that trotting meter, an actor drops the reins and lets it carry him smoothly, thoughtlessly to the end of a speech. No breaking the meter; no tiny pauses to show the birth of a word, or to emphasize a word; no little hesitations or varyings of pace to show that the actor really means the words he's saying. Some attention to breaking this grip of the meter might have helped Shylock find more variety in his fury -- something to contrast with the shouted anger -- or helped Portia find more real poetry in her "quality of mercy" speech.
In Christopher Marlowe's Jew of Malta, which preceded The Merchant of Venice by a few years, Barabas, the title character, is an irredeemably evil bloodthirsty monster. Barabas, like Shylock, would have been played by an actor wearing a red wig and beard and a grotesquely hooked false nose. Such caricatures were common on the Elizabethan stage. They were not drawn from life; Shakespeare might never have seen a Jew, since Edward the First had expelled them from England some three hundred years before. No, such portrayals grew from an ancient animosity.
The Jew, since the middle ages, had been seen by Christians as alien, suspect, and always a ready scapegoat. Horrid rumors swirled around the Jews for centuries: as late as 1946 forty Jews in Poland were killed because they were accused of murdering Christian children to use their blood in making matzo. Why such continuing vilification?
Throughout history hatred and conflict have been the inseparable running-dogs of at least the monotheistic religions. The birth of Christianity saw centuries washed with internecine blood in obscure theological quarrels about the nature of the Trinity. Today we have but to look at the Middle-East or Northern Ireland to become painfully aware that such conflict has not lessened with the so-called "advance" of civilization. But today, as in ancient times, religion is really a false flag under which nationalistic or tribal entities rally their forces in economic and geopolitical struggles.
The emperor Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman empire to render his subjects more tractable. The kings of Europe, drawing their divine right to rule from a Christian God, had good reason to establish Christianity as their official religion. In such lands it is no wonder that the Jew became pariah.
But there is one more important historical fact which underlies the ancient resentment of Christians toward Jews: Jews were the moneylenders--the only moneylenders. Christians were forbidden by their religion to lend money at interest (as are Moslems to this day). The Jews, by default, took on this function. Just as in India, where the lowest castes perform certain shameful but necessary civic services, the Jews became "untouchable". And who among us does not hate his moneylender?