Sunday, November 16, 2008

Show me the money

Not so fast! Sarah Newhouse, Robert Walsh and Jeremiah Kissel hold that thought in The Merchant of Venice. (Photos by Stratton McCrady.)

Last week, Phoenix theatre sybil Carolyn Clay opined that "Naming The Merchant of Venice after Antonio is like naming Medea after Jason." Hmmm. Earth to Carolyn: it's not usually a good idea to bet against the Bard's artistic decisions. And I'll let you in on a little secret: The Merchant of Venice is named after Antonio, its eponymous businessman, because he is the play's haunted center, its slippery, unstable moral fulcrum. Portia and Bassanio, the young lovers Lorenzo and Jessica, even Shylock himself, all inhabit competing side shows branching from, or orbiting, his central thematic pillar. Many of Shakespeare's plays circle questions that are never answered, and in fact defy solution: "Why is Hamlet feigning madness?" "Why does Iago hate Othello?" In The Merchant of Venice, Antonio operates as a kind human factotum for a similar thematic question; he is the play's contradictory heart made flesh. So if you ain't got Antonio, you ain't got The Merchant of Venice.

And the Actors' Shakespeare Project ain't got Antonio; hence their current production of this problematic, but always compelling, comedy is no more than intermittently interesting, despite a daringly nasty turn as Shylock from Jeremy Piv - oops, I mean Jerry Kissel! The production gets into trouble the way many honorable productions do: by exploiting Shylock as a proxy for our modern horror at anti-Semitism, and then allowing said horror to overwhelm (or replace) the thematic complexity of the drama. This, of course, is understandable in a production whose director and star have made much of the fact that they are practicing Jews; and for us Gentiles, it allows us to feel good about the fact that we're not Nazis (some of us are just Republicans, that's all). And I suppose director and star deserve credit for going where goyim would fear to tread, and making their Shylock an obvious jerk - even a stereotypically crass, greedy "Jewish" jerk (albeit in subtle air quotes); this is arguably the most anti-Semitic interpretation of the character I've ever seen. But a new twist on Shylock by itself doesn't allow audiences to limn the cultural conundrums that Shakespeare explores in Merchant. And in a weird way, it actually lets Christianity itself - Shakespeare's real target - off the moral hook.

But don't get me wrong: The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic, no question, and any production must grapple with, and somehow justify its existence against, this content. But it is that very rare beast, an anti-Semitic tract written by a man who is obviously not, personally, anti-Semitic. (This should be your first clue that something very strange is going on in The Merchant of Venice.) Compare the play, for instance, to Marlowe's blood-curdlingThe Jew of Malta, and you suddenly realize that Shakespeare effected nothing less than a revolution in the stage treatment of Jews. True, his characters routinely spout anti-Semitic epithets, and Shylock is at some level a kind of object (as all the characters are) in a carefully-constructed dramatic paradox. But it is no exaggeration to say that Shylock is not only one of the most potent characters in literature, but also a great tragic figure (stuck in a romantic comedy!). Indeed, he's basically the first draft for Lear, arguably the greatest tragic figure in Western culture. And no anti-Semite would ever write a tragic Jewish character; bigotry just doesn't work that way.

Certainly this jarring dichotomy between character and context is part of what has kept the play alive for, lo, four hundred years. But the Actors' Shakespeare Project, and director Melia Bensussen, essentially undo its underlying tension and turn it into a hip, downtown version of Free to Be You and Me (crossed with Entourage). Although in Bensussen's vision, it seems you're only really free to be you and me if you're heterosexual and white. For Bensussen lets pass the play's racist moments (yep, Shakespeare throws a few of those to the crowd, too) seemingly sans comment (she gives some of them to an African-American actor, which oddly enough makes them more, rather than less, palatable). And via Robert Walsh's unpleasant non-performance as Antonio, she gelds the Bard's most complex and subtle portrait of a gay man (my tribe, by the way); in her panic to attack anti-Semitism, she seems to forget all about homophobia.

Now okay, maybe Antonio's not gay - maybe he's just a heterosexual man passionately in love with another man (Bassanio). Whatever. But whether or not he's a pitcher or a catcher, Antonio has to be in love, or The Merchant of Venice makes no sense, as at a deep level it's a meditation on the paradoxical co-existence of love and money. Essentially, Shylock keeps love and money separate, while Antonio, like Christian culture in general, mixes them promiscuously; indeed, he tries to make money "breed" not more money but love; seen in this way, he and Shylock are mirrored, rather than identical, twins (a constant trope in Shakespeare). But because Bensussen can only see the "money" half of this equation, she makes Antonio and Shylock alike only in that they're both assholes (whereas in most productions they're anything but). Hence Walsh's Antonio, rather than being melancholic or neurotic, is cold, arrogant, and derisive - he doesn't hate Shylock because he subconsciously perceives his moral challenge, he hates Shylock simply because he's a prick. And Jeremiah Kissel's Shylock is equally priapic; like, yes, Ari Gold, he's a walking psychological tic, obsessed with besting Christian contempt via high-octane, cynical comedy.

The only problem is that said "contempt" isn't actually part of the play; this ongoing showdown, manic as it is, is extra-curricular; it has to do with the text's milieu rather than the text itself (which is actually putting Christianity under a far more probing microscope). And Kissel's strategy - which is sometimes virtuosic technically - utterly misses much of Shylock's emotional resonance. For surprisingly enough, Shylock is a deeply romantic figure: he loves his religion, and the daughter who betrays him, and his lost wife, and even (a bit) his bigoted Christian servant. Indeed, because he's so hard-boiled, we have more trust in Shylock's love than in anyone else's in the play. Perhaps the text's most devastating moment, in fact, comes when he discovers his daughter has bartered a family ring for a monkey; a ring which "I had of Leah when I was a bachelor," he whispers. Rings loom large in this play, as seals of romantic love, and symbols of the kind of "bond" we are forbidden to break (unlike the perverse contract on Antonio's flesh). Indeed, in that one moment, as in a flash of lightning, Shakespeare subtly up-ends his whole structure, and lets us know that Shylock was secretly truer to love than Bassanio or Antonio proves to be; but in the ASP version of the play, the impact of the moment goes missing; it's just a sad grace note.

Like much of the production, unfortunately; indeed, I began to lose track of the missed opportunities in this performance. Jessica never seemed to notice that her new Christian friends weren't very Christian, and Lorenzo's discourse on music, itself one of the Bard's most lyrical songs, here came out pretty flat. Likewise Bassanio, played as a total "dude" (Robert Serrell, with Sarah Newhouse, above left) lacked even the interest of his own mysterious affections, and didn't seem much moved either by his mistress or by Antonio's predicament. And an entire thematic level had gone missing, too - that is, the theme of generational duty in which Jessica and Portia are mirrored (Jessica betrays her father, Portia honors hers); in fact the director entirely cut the early comic scene which announces the theme. So much for that, I suppose.

So what's left of The Merchant of Venice in the ASP version? Well, the usual drifting staging we expect from postmodern Shakespeare, dressed up in vintage or club clothing (another cliché by now; designers, please stop shopping at the Garment District!). The exciting space at Midway Studios is at least always interesting (and works best for the shadowy Venice of Jessica's escape), but could have been far more interesting with more focused lighting. There's one very good, broad performance from Doug Lockwood as Aragon; he does the standard schtick in the role (speech impediment, femme pomposity) but invests it with such commitment that it works, as usual. Meanwhile, the talented Marianna Bassham heads back to the trailer park for her interpretation of Nerissa - as she has for many roles - but still keeps the laughs coming, while Michael Forden Walker puts an interestingly low-key, slimy spin on her trashy new hubby. In what's arguably the lead, Sarah Newhouse makes a smart but somewhat superficial Portia; she's all sparkling, ribald intelligence - quite the convincing junior partner - but betrays few romantic (rather than sexual) depths, and even less in the way of real wisdom. Then again, the poor woman was fighting her costume for half the show (a tiger-striped halter top circa 1975, above left); no wonder she looked unwise! But then maybe out in Belmont you can't find a wardrobe for love or money.


  1. I also noticed the elimination of the homoerotic element when I saw ASP's Merchant.
    So in last night's panel discussion, I asked the director about it.

    Bensussen said that making Antonio gay was almost too easy. She said she wanted to explore the ideals of platonic friendship, and thought the relationship with Bassanio felt more interesting by removing the romantic aspects. She also mentioned her goal in presenting a "traditional" happy ending to the play, and showing Antonio as a rejected-suitor hurt that mood.

    Not trying to justify it or anything, but thought you'd be interested in her explanation.

    [BTW, Bob Walsh was away, so Ben Evett took the role of Antonio for the two scenes they recreated (excerpts of I.3 and IV.1). Electrifyingly different. I'd love to see that performance.]

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Lis.

    It's not that Antonio has to be "gay" in the modern sense - it's that he has to be in love, perhaps without knowing it (after all, he knows not why he is so sad!).

    I'm very curious as to how Bensussen felt that Antonio's relationship with Bassanio was MORE interesting without any romantic (or platonically romantic) aspects. I'm not sure what the relationship even IS without those aspects - what interests or pursuits do Antonio and Bassanio share, exactly? And if he's not a romantic figure and a parallel to Portia, then why does she have Antonio hand Bassanio her ring in the last act, with the highly ironic line (basically in Shakespeare's own voice), "Then you shall be his surety"? This is one of those moments in which the Bard heavily underlines his intents: Antonio's body was "won" by a ring which was the symbol of Portia's body - i.e., one body was traded for another! This betrayal is immediately mirrored by another: Portia's declaration that she has slept with the "man" who now has the ring. The Portia/Antonio twinship really could not be clearer; it would take a special blindness on the part of a director not to pick up on this. But then Bensussen sounds clueless enough to miss it.

    And, as I think I pointed out in my review, the play simply collapses thematically without Antonio as a romantic figure. It becomes, as Bensussen apparently wants it to be, a muddled meditation on anti-Semitism, kind of hanging in cultural space, and dependent on our comfortable disapproval of same for what emotional impact it has. (For why, exactly, should we care about a pissy, anti-Semitic Antonio, or his dim buddy?) Needless to say, if that were the be-all and end-all of The Merchant of Venice, it would have long ago been consigned to the dustbin of history with The Jew of Malta.

  3. Hey! I like Jew of Malta!

    [It's a fun read, at least; I've never seen it performed.]

  4. F. Murray Abraham did Jew of Malta and Merchant of Venice back-to-back last year in New York. I should have caught it, but missed it. Reviews generally concurred that Abraham made a surprisingly dark and compelling Shylock, but that the extremity of the Marlowe forced him into playing it as broad comedy.