KPBS AIRDATE: March 29, 2002
Everyone knows that “The Merchant of Venice” is controversial and anti-Semitic. It’s no secret, and it’s always a tricky business to mount the play. Some Jewish theatergoers refuse to see it at all. Some think it should just be shelved and forgotten. So it was a risky selection for the San Diego Rep’s artistic director Sam Woodhouse for his first foray into Shakespeare.
I’ve seen many productions of the play, and many takes on Shylock, the Jewish moneylender — from Hal Holbrook’s highly assimilated aristocrat to Dustin Hoffman’s simple and sympathetic businessman. Ron Campbell gives an impressive performance of Shylock as accented foreigner, outsider, Orthodox Jew. But he’s by no means a likable guy. He’s nasty, petty, angry and villainous from the get-go. All the citizens of Venice scorn and ridicule him, most of all Antonio, the merchant of the title, who curses Shylock, but is forced to borrow money from him for a close (in this production, maybe uncomfortably close) friend.
Doug Roberts proves a flat and uninspired Antonio. Much more disturbing, however, is the way in which Woodhouse has heightened the problematic elements of the play. At every turn, his directorial choices fan the flames of anti-Semitism. Characters don’t just refer to Shylock as “the Jew” (a pejorative term from any gentile) but they spit out the word with venom. One could argue that the director is an equal opportunity offender, since the Prince of Morocco is played as broad as Amos and Andy. The heiress Portia, forcefully played by Karole Foreman, seems, at first, like a vain, fickle airhead, before she transforms herself into a convincing man, a highly intelligent legal scholar who shrewdly defends the merchant Antonio so he doesn’t have to relinquish the dread pound of flesh that was his IOU to Shylock. The ultimate evidence of insensitivity to the Jewish issues came at the most horrific moment of the play, when punishment is meted out to Shylock. After he is stripped of absolutely everything — he’s lost his daughter, his land, his house and all his wealth — he is subjected to the ultimate humiliation, converting to Christianity. On the night I was there, instead of gasping in shock, the audience laughed. Laughed. I was, frankly, appalled. This doesn’t seem to be the way to teach tolerance, if that’s what the Rep intended to do.
Woodhouse has chosen to hie close to the sometime description of “Merchant” as a comedy. In fact, it’s almost a musical comedy, with various characters either bursting into song or sitting down at the center-stage piano to play. What it all has to do with jazz isn’t at all clear, though the music is quite pleasant. The young towns-boys are annoyingly played like a bunch of idiotic adolescent hooligans. There’s entirely too much mindless silliness for a play so fraught with serious overtones. For my money, this “Merchant” should peddle its wares elsewhere.
©2002 Patté Productions Inc