A Gentile Shylock

Shylock is a Jew.  A bad Jew, perhaps, but a Jew nonetheless.  This is something that is known by virtually every theatergoer on the planet except, apparently, Ike Schambelan, whose new production of The Merchant of Venice presents us with a decidedly assimilated moneylender.  Never mind that this leads to some awkward textual inconsistencies—Shylock complains to Antonio, “[You] spit upon my Jewish gabardine” (he wears a suit) and, “[You] void your rheum upon my beard” (he face is clean shaven)—instead, let us focus on the fact that Shylock, before anything else, is a stubborn, loyal and orthodox member of his tribe, one whose final humiliation is conversion to Christianity.  But Nicholas Viselli, who plays the role, is dressed like a Wall Street executive; his conversion as well as his insistence on receiving his bond is meaningless without his dedication to the Jewish commandments.  (#69: Men must not shave their beards with a razor.)  Fortune has elected him a representative of his people, a defender of their presence in Italy—he demands his pound of flesh for personal as well as collective revenge, to win a victory for the Jews.  But in an outfit no different from his fellow Venetians, he’s just a jerk with a grudge.

Mr. Schambelan writes, “Usually seen as a play about anti-Semitism, it actually presents 4 outcasts—Jew, Muslim, Hispanic and blind man.  All are played by the same actor … pointing up the parallel of prejudice based on race, religion and disability.”  This is an interesting take, but one that has no connection to the production he has directed.  While Shylock’s Jewishness is absent enough to allow him to pass—making it odd that a stranger would spit on him in the first place—the remainder of these persecuted types are reduced to lazy stereotypes: a Moroccan who prays to Allah in a silly, high-pitched voice, an Italian who has the ethnic substance of the Mario Brothers, and a homosexual (not mentioned in the director’s note) with the subtlety of Liberace.  What we have, then, are two extreme but revealing responses to otherness.  By draining Shylock of his Judaism, Mr. Schambelan attempts to sidestep the antisemitic problems of the play as if they are too difficult to consider.  But more interestingly, with the Muslim, the “Hispanic” and the homosexual, he has amplified the different traits in the characters while drowning out any of their depth.  The result is that others can either look and behave exactly like us or they must be easily identified by their comic difference.

As if this Merchant wasn’t already enough of a nightmare, Mr. Schambelan makes a casting choice that reveals a more subtle homophobia.  Antonio, the often-overlooked eponymous character, provides the play with its strongest love story in his homoerotic relationship with Bassanio—before his trial, Antonio tells his young friend, “Commend me to your honorable wife … Say how I loved you.  Speak fair of me in death, and when the tale is told, bid her be judge whether Bassanio had not once a love.”  Bassanio, in turn, offers his life in place of Antonio’s and later admits to Portia that the two are “infinitely bound,” even going so far as to risk his marriage by giving up her ring to Antonio’s savior.  Here, however, the merchant is played by Melanie Boland, a woman who cannot hide her figure under male clothing; this ostensible gender-bending, though superficially progressive, only works to “correct” Shakespeare’s already complex exploration of sexuality.  Not only must the Jew be a Gentile but, at least in appearance, the gays must also be straight.

Granted, The Merchant of Venice is an endlessly difficult play, a slippery masterpiece, and no production is able to successfully juggle all of its problems.  This one has managed to come up with some new ones.  And perhaps it is so heinous because it self-righteously insists that it has a liberal-minded answer; it claims to defy prejudice when in fact it perpetuates it.

The Merchant of Venice runs through May 13th at the Clurman Theatre.  410 W. 42nd Street  New York, NY.

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