The setup: While this much-abridged version of Shakespeare's "comedy" Merchant of Venice is not the first production to be set in a Nazi concentration camp, I hope it will be the last.
The physical production from Classical Theatre Company is striking and the acting from the three men (Thomas Prior, Philip Lehl and Matthew Keenan) is wonderfully nuanced, but the intellectual conceit of reconceptualizing the world of Shylock the Jew as a play-within-a-play in the hell that was Auschwitz seems, at the very least, terribly misguided -- a disservice to Shakespeare and a much too easy -- if undoubtedly powerful -- way to link the play's blatant anti-Semitism to the Holocaust.
The execution: Of all Shakespeare's works, The Merchant of Venice is a product of its times, eloquently and candidly so. It's his most politically incorrect play, amazingly insensitive to our contemporary, enlightened ears; a Renaissance crowd-pleaser that uses every Jewish stereotype known to Elizabethan England to paint Shylock as stock villain: unholy usurer, obsessively avaricious, sly and wily, diabolical, without mercy or kindness, beastly and so described as dog and wolf. When daughter Jessica elopes with Lorenzo, stealing jewels and money from her father, Shylock is more upset over losing his precious ducats, not his precious daughter. We don't expect the great Shakespeare to bash Jews with such relish, but Shylock gets a thorough thrashing. Divine Shakespeare was very much human.
Shakespeare, wily himself, is nearly as harsh on his Christians. They emote passionately about mercy and goodness and go all starry-eyed over love, but they sorely lack these virtues. Bassanio is opportunistic, eager to find an heiress; Antonio, usually pining away for an unrequited bromance with Bassanio, is sarcastic and unkind toward Shylock; Gratiano thoroughly despises all Jews; and even sweet Portia doesn't show Shylock much mercy at the end.
But yet, Shakespeare works his magic, turning this stage Jew -- a despised and comic fixture since the medieval miracle plays -- into the work's most lively, intriguing character. His role is relatively small, but Shylock devours the play. He might be unbelievably volcanic in his rage, gleefully sharpening his knife on the sole of his shoe as he prepares to extract his "pound of flesh" when Antonio can't repay the loan, but he's terribly human in seeking revenge against innumerable slights, slurs, and kicks that he's endured from Antonio and his kind through the years. He's had enough! If his revenge is bitter, heartless, and over the top, his motives are entirely understandable. No actor leaps at the chance to play bland Bassanio or woefully depressed Antonio, everybody wants to play Shylock.
Except for two low comedy scenes, adaptor Shea Thomas Cooper keeps the mood unrelentingly gloomy, befitting the setting. Almost all the famous love scenes with their exalted poetry about music and the heavens have been excised, as has calm and intelligent Portia, who only shows up for the trial scene: "The quality of mercy is not strained..." Jessica is quickly dispatched after a short scene, but Lehl's luxuriant characterization of her as she combs her hair cries out for some future all-male version.
The focus here is squarely on Shylock, which skews the play almost as if the Nazis had edited it. Perhaps they have, as Merchant is performed by these two inmates as if we in the audience were Germans at the camp watching them put on the show. This allows the actors to play not only Shakespeare's diverse characters, but two Jews reacting to what they're forced to play. It's brutal in its nakedness, especially when the circumstances of where they are and what they're doing rush to the surface and overwhelm them.
That two must play many characters lessens the impact overall, especially in the trial scene, which still retains its original power to surprise, as the dialogue ping pongs among the major characters, and Lehl has to don or doff a duke's sash, a lawyer's collar, or Antonio's chains to keep up with the shifting dynamics.
Prior is a sterling Shylock, neither overtly sympathetic or numbingly evil. He's the put-upon outsider, just wanting to be left alone. But when given the chance to get even with society for the wrongs done him, to right the wrongs of centuries, he turns fierce and steely, a vengeful Fury. He purrs at the news of Antonio's downfall; then softly worries that Jessica will be tempted by worldly influences, not realizing she's about to elope. He handles the trial scene with mastery, raging at injustice, then raging at the Nazis.
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Does the Bard have a better friend than Lehl? He's a superlative interpreter, bringing all sorts of wondrous personal touches and inflections to flesh out his characters. His loopy Launcelot, coming and going at the same time, is worthy of the great screen clowns.
Although their mastery of Elizabethan meter is unexcelled, Prior and Lehl's heart-breaking depiction of the Jewish prisoners is remarkably affecting. As we enter the theater these two are already at work, sorting through the luggage of the doomed arrivals. Sick and weary, they plod through their task, caught up short by a doll or a framed photograph tucked inside a suitcase. They toss the clothes into chutes labeled "manner" or "frauen." They work in silence, although outside can be heard faint train sounds, police whistles, and dogs barking. It's an ominous beginning. Another day in hell. A Nazi commandant enters and throws a volume of Shakespeare at them. He sits and watches. In deference they bow stiffly to him, and to us, fear etched across their faces. The title is announced, the play begins, cutting immediately to Shylock's entrance in Act I, sc. III.
The design is exceptional: set by Thomas Donahue, lighting by Alex Jainchill, costumes by Blair Gulledge, sound by Tim Thompson. The mood of horror is chillingly conveyed, and the pace grows unbearably intense under director John Johnston. The verdict: The Merchant of Venice doesn't need the unfathomable dread of Auschwitz foisted upon it, no matter how honorable the producers' intent. The comedy has its own problems for today's audiences, but the Holocaust isn't one of them.
Classical Theatre Company's Merchant of Venice plays through April 14 at Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street. Purchase tickets online at classicaltheatre.org or call 713-963-9665. $12-$18.