The easiest way to explain how The American Shakespeare Center handles the troubling aspects of a play like The Merchant of Venice is to describe what happened during intermission Friday night, but since that event wasn’t actually part of the play, I’m saving it for last.
Religious hatred is part of the play; so is romantic comedy, and those two aspects of human experience don’t sit well together, which may be why Merchant isn’t as popular as plays that separate the dark and troubling from the trivial and frivolous. Most of us prefer theater that makes sense of the world to theater that leaves us wondering if the world makes sense, which is what ordinary life makes a lot of us wonder, after all, especially in the internet age. Today on the homepage of the Spanish newspaper El Pais, for example, you can vote for your favorite TV series in a box beside a video of Islamists in Mali whipping a couple taken in adultery. In a world where that kind of juxtaposition is part of ordinary life, the mixing in The Merchant of Venice rings completely true. At least in the hands of these people it does.
Here’s a brief summary of the action:
Bassanio asks to borrow 3000 ducats from Antonio so he can chase a woman in style, but Antonio is strapped for cash, so he co-signs on a loan from Shylock, a Jewish loanshark, whom he has often insulted. Shylock may be willing to let this business deal improve relations with Antonio, but the latter insults him again: “An evil soul, producing holy witness, is like a villain with a smiling cheek,” he tells Bassanio. Shylock then sets the penalty for default on the loan at a pound of Antonio’s flesh, to be cut from the body part of Shylock’s choosing, if the money isn’t repaid in three months, which no one thinks will be a problem for Antonio, even Shylock himself.
After Bassanio sets out, Shylock’s world unravels; first his servant decides he’s tired of working for a stingy Jew, then his daughter runs off with a Christian — and with Shylock’s jewels — so that when ill winds threaten to keep Antonio’s ships from reaching port in time, Shylock’s bitterness fixates on that pound of flesh, to which he has a legal right as soon as the repayment deadline passes. And it does. Shylock takes Antonio to court, where he expects to mutilate him, but he is out-lawyered by a ‘Christian doctor,’ and is then humiliated by a brutal show of ‘Christian mercy.’ After he stumbles off the stage, we get to watch a couple of the women spend all of Act V making their husbands think they slept with other men to spite them, which they didn’t really do, but it’s fun to watch them tell their husbands that they did! Everybody loves a cuckhold joke.
Three star-turns make sure we don’t try to separate the bitter from the sweet in this production. The lightest of the three is Chris Johnston’s five minute tour-de-farce as the Prince of Arragon, who would like to marry Portia, the beautiful heiress whose father decreed that her suitors had to play a shell-game — pick the chest with Portia’s picture in it and you win the prize! Johnston bursts onto the stage in an ermine cape and a feather headdress, with a jeweled codpiece and a hyperdramatic European accent. When he stumbles on his way to kiss the lady’s hand, he covers his gaffe with disco sequence right out of Saturday Night Fever. It’s no surprise that he opts for the chest with the slogan, “He who chooses here will get what he deserves,” nor that he seems just as happy with the mirror he finds inside that chest as he would have been with Portia’s picture. The flamboyance of Johnston’s performance reminds us that the darkest aspects of human experience unfold beside ridiculous stupidity.
In his monologue as Shylock’s servant Launcelot, John Harrell reminds us that we’re all a whirl of conflicting impulses. He’s wondering whether he should abandon Shylock: “The fiend is at mine elbow, and tempts me… [to run away],” Launcelot says, and then Harrell jumps to Launcelot’s elbow, crouches, and drops his voice to a lower register.
“Good Launcelot Gobbo,” he says, “use your legs, take the start…”
Then he jumps to the other side, makes his voice effeminate, and speaks as Launcelot’s conscience: “Honest Launcelot Gobbo; do not run; scorn running with thy heels.”
The debate continues through several exchanges, while a third character, Launcelot Gobbo, comments on the comments of Conscience and Fiend, first addressing us, and then turning his attention toward the decision he’s trying to make. The monologue is only 27 lines long, but Harrell stretches it out over several minutes, playing three distinctly different characters. “I’m a Jew if I stay with the Jew any longer,” he finally says.
The questions in that scene are fundamental to the play: should we honor our commitments, even when they harm us? And should Christians continue with Jews or separate from them? Rather than presume to answer those questions, Shakespeare poses them as vividly as possible, in terms that remove us further from whatever answers we brought with us to the theater. He expands them, in other words, rather than reducing them. And the most compelling question-expander in this production is Shylock. James Keegan portrays the famous Jew as a man accustomed to thriving among enemies. We see the exertion required to maintain dignity in the face of routine degradation: here’s the way you talk to people who don’t like you; here’s the way you dress, and how you stand.
His reserve and resolve are broken when his daughter elopes with a Christian — “I never felt [the curse upon our nation] till now,” he moans. When his friend Tubal tells him that his daughter has traded one of the family jewels for a pet monkey, he conflates his grief at the loss of one treasure with his grief at the loss of another — all the treasures his tribe has lost through centuries — and he sets his heart upon revenge. At the end of Act IV, he shows us what it’s like to choke on the humiliation that you and yours have managed so swallow for hundreds of years. It’s a brilliant performance from beginning to end, largely because it wraps the problem of Jewish-Christian coexistence in the problems of love, loyalty, revenge, and degradation, thus making them all the more acute without resolving any of them.
Here’s the part that shines the brightest light on the American Shakespeare Center: between the end of Act III, when Shylock hardens his heart, and the beginning of Act IV, when Shylock sets about collecting a pound of Antonio’s flesh, the actors provide a musical interlude that culminates with Nerissa (Allison Glenzer) making a special request. “We’d like to ask everyone who feels like learning a special dance routine to join us on stage,” she says. It so happens that one of ASC’s high school theater camps is in attendance, and their enthusiasm for this invitation excites 25 or 30 other people of all ages and colors to join them and several of the actors on stage. Nerissa explains the foot work and the movement of the circle to the left and to the right, and they do a practice run, and then the music starts. All at once we realize that she has taught them the traditional Jewish dance to Hava Nagila, the traditional Jewish song of celebration and solidarity, and when we look up from the dancers, who include Antonio and Bassanio, to the musicians in the balcony, we see that Shylock and his daughter are leading the song, the lyrics to which are “Let us rejoice and be glad! Awake, brothers! Awake with a happy heart.”
It takes a lot of nerve to ask an audience to learn a dance that turns out to be that one right before they watch the Jewish anti-hero try to cut the muscles off the Christian’s chest. I don’t know of another theater company with nerve enough to do that. Or with grace enough to pull it off.