Perhaps it's because we're into the Christmas season, but as Shylock chanted and keened his way through New Jewish Theatre's production of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, I found myself thinking about Ebenezer Scrooge.
New generations like to reinterpret classic stories in their own images. When Dickens penned A Christmas Carol in 1843, Bob Cratchit was the story's most admired character; thus, all those familiar images of the muffler-laden Bob bravely carrying frail Tiny Tim upon his shoulders. But in today's more materialistic world, it's the crusty Scrooge with whom we identify.
When Shakespeare wrote this comedy about friendship, generosity and the coupling of money and love more than 400 years ago, the nefarious Shylock was clearly the villain. (How do we know he's the villain? For one thing, because he disappears after Act Four. Name a Shakespearean hero who does not appear in the final act.) But now we're presented with a revisionist Merchant in which the producer's playbill note describes Shylock as "Shakespeare's first tragic figure" and the director's note informs us that the money lender is "a man of dignity, a tragic figure...."
Any director and Robin Weatherall is an intelligent director can squeeze subtext-to-order into the cracks and crevices of any story. Shylock certainly lends himself to new interpretation, for he is a compelling and even a contemporary character. The old miser hoards words the same way he hoards gold, repeating the same curt phrases over and over ("I will have my bond"), a practice that makes his actions easy to follow. Jerry Vogel is not only an effective Shylock; he is the centerpiece of the evening. When his scheme to extract "a pound of flesh" from his nemesis Antonio boomerangs and the unforgiving Jew is commanded to "become a Christian," Vogel's reply, "I am content," is suffused with pity and irony. But tragedy? After he just tried to use the letter of the law to kill a man? OK, if you say so.
But here is the palpable problem with that approach. If a production unduly emphasizes Shylock, as this one does, when he then leaves the story after Act Four, that grasping, covetous old sinner takes the evening's energy and momentum with him. Yet there's still another full act to play out. Shakespeare, having rid the script of his rasping villain, now returns us to Belmont, the charmed locale for all those scenes that have involved the wooing and winning of the wealthy Portia (Lauren Dunagan). The Act Five tomfoolery involving a missing ring ("a hoop of gold") will bring the play to clean closure by melding its two themes of love and affluence.
But for four acts Portia's casket courtship has taken a back seat to Shylock's obsessions. Now the viewer is expected to switch gears, shift allegiance and revel in idyllic, musical lyricism and fancy. It's asking a lot. On opening night, after Shylock left the stage you could feel the audience wanting the play to be over. It shouldn't be that way; we need to care as much about the world of the evening's real hero as about its purported tragic hero.
Who is the play's real hero? Antonio is. He's the merchant of Venice; Shylock is merely the mercenary of Venice. Portraying the rueful yet generous Antonio, Kevin Beyer who is no stranger to the thumbtack-size Sarah & Abraham Wolfson Studio Theatre knows minimalist acting works well in an auditorium that's only four rows deep. Even as at least one actress scampers about the stage indicating (a polite word for mugging) incessantly, Beyer's very stillness commands the viewer's eye and empathy.
There is much to admire here. For starters, it's refreshing to see Shakespeare staged in such an intimate setting. Then too, in addition to Vogel and Beyer, a third admirable performance is rendered by Jim Butz, who woos Portia with breezy charm. Viewers will have to decide for themselves if these efforts to recast Shylock are valid. But whether you deem him a tragic hero or a clutching villain, by evening's end his presence is sorely missed.