The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings

A CurtainUp Berkshires Review

The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice is a schizophrenic sort of play. It's categorized as a comedy and is indeed filled with much comic business; yet its most famous character, Shylock, is a Jew whose beloved daughter is lost to him when she elopes with a man who belongs to a virulently anti-Semitic society. When grief, anger and vengeance overcome common sense he ends up literally forced to his knees to renounce his faith and his fortune. It is not only the tragedy of one man but of all outsiders -- and by extension, the tragedy of insiders who talk of Christian virtue but fail to practice it.

Comedy does permeate the play. It is at home in Venice. It is at home on the road to and in tranquil Belmont. Where the witty Portia seeks to find a worthy suitor within the confines prescribed by her father's will.

The contradiction of genre stems from the fact that the play's comedy is as segregated from the central tragedy as Jews and other non-mainstream sects are from the Venice and Belmont social order. Tina Packer has bravely undertaken to have it all: An exhilarating sense of being transported back into an Elizabethan metropolis, (Venice), and an idyllic suburb (Belmont) to which the Mount's outdoor stage lends itself particularly well thought-provoking coming-to-grips approach to a story about "good guys" who deprive a defiantly unlikeable but not evil victim of his identity -- and do so with glee.

Ms. Packer has also added some bold new strokes to both comedy and tragedy.

The suitors who come to Belmont to claim Portia, (magnificently played by Tod Randolph), give the long evening some of its most entertaining and hilarious moments. John Douglas Thompson as the Prince of Morocco, (he also plays the Duke of Venice who later presides over the famous trial scene), is so amusingly endearing that you almost wish Packer had taken liberties with the text and let him pick the right casket. While the Prince leaves without Portia, as prescribed by the Bard, Dan McLeary has been free rein to wrest maximum hilarity from his role as the second suitor, the Prince of Arragon. Besides sporting a campy red wig, he speaks with a totally unShakespearian Spanish accent -- and gets away with it. McLeary also plays Old Gobbo to Jason Asprey's somewhat too over-the-top portrayal of his son and Shylock's defecting servant Launcelot Gobbo.

The main and most memorable innovation comes vis-à-vis the role of Shylock, (played with curmugeonly flair by Jonathan Epstein). With a few deft directorial strokes Packer has made his tragedy the beginning, end and very core of the play. The first picture she paints for us is of the outsider in the tightly knit, deeply bigoted Venetian society. To give this sense of apartness more universality that opening picture is of a trio of Muslims, as outside Venetian society's mainstream as Shylock and his Jewish brethren. Those Muslims are replaced by a searing closing visual and vocal rendering of Shylock and his daughter Jessica (Christine Calfas). It is an image that casts an unforgettably somber and thought-provoking layer over the happy conclusions to the various romantic entanglements. Since this stunning finale, like that in the recent Broadway revival of Cabaret, depends on surprise for its full impact. I'll put a descriptive note after the box with production details for readers who may not get to Lenox to see this production. I can, however, state without spoiling anything that for this scene to be even more compelling, the production needed to more firmly establish Shylock's love for his daughter.

As it is Shylock's famous "If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, shall we not die?" ( III, i, 58-66) suffers from two flaws. As delivered by Epstein this speech falls somewhat short of its full power and his talk of wishing Jessica dead still follows too closely on its heels. This last tends to revoke sympathy gained just seventeen or so lines earlier. If the "new twist" could have included a bit of the orthodox Jewish tradition of mourning children who marry out of the faith as if they were indeed dead, (a quick image of Shylock on the wooden box used during Shivah?), the angry insistence on his "pound of flesh" would more clearly stem from grief-induced anger at Antonio. Malcolm Ingram's Antonio, by the way, is rather cool without any of the tensions to imply his erotic feelings for Bassanio. By the same token Peter Wittrock's Bassanio is good but not on a par with Tod Randolph's super- dynamic Portia.

The new elements of this Merchant aside, the production spills gracefully beyond the multi-level stage and into the surrounding woods, as well as up and down the aisles. Except for the pivotal confrontations, Belmont remains a lyrical far-off place in the forest area surrounding the theater. The movement of the white-robed figures are reminiscent of a beautiful painting of Sylphs dancing in thewood. While the cast is too large to comment about all, their line delivery was uniformly clear.

To end on a consumer guidance note: Like previous Main Stage Shakespeare productions, this one is an outstanding experience. If you go, take bug spray, a warm jacket and arrive early enough to spread a blanket for a pre-performance picnic on the beautiful grounds of The Mount. That blanket will also come in handy when the sky darkens and the air cools.

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Tina Packer
Cast: Jonathan Epstein as Shylock, Malcolm Ingram as Antonio, Peter Wittrock as Bassanio, Tod Randolph as Portia

Sets: Jim Youngerman
Costumes: Arthur Oliver
Lights: Michial Giannitti
Composer/Sound Design: Harold Meltzer
The Mount
2 Plunket St., Lenox, MA (413/637-3353)
opening 8/01/98
Performances: Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings at 8 p.m.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer

Reviewer's Addendum

As stated in the review, since the ending is a new take on the controversy about the play's anti-semitism, what Ms. Packer has done will have the strongest impact without prior knowledge about the details. As written, Shylock's daughter willingly stripped away her Jewish identity, as her father was unwillingly stripped of his. The Venetians who seduced her and demeaned him revel in their victory. At this Merchant' s end Shylock can be seen in Venice, chanting a Jewish prayer and Jessica, as if hearing him, turns from her lover's arms and instinctly chimes in. Some will perceive this as a way to give more force to the pain inherent in this voluntary and involuntary loss of these characters' heritage, or even an omen of the even greater monstrosities of this century. Others will perceive it as a more hopeful omen -- fulfilled by the freedom and belief of future Shylocks and Jessicas . Whatever emotions it evokes, it is a powerful new ending even though it leaves as many questions as it answers.

August 12, 1998 Addendum: Not surprisingly, we've had a lot of mail pertaining to our review. The group that felt Ms. Packer's revisionist ending should have been condemned was predominated by those who identified themselves as current and former English teachers. To them Shakespeare's portrayal of Jessica left little room for a redemptive ending. As I mentioned in my description of this ending (at the end of the review), Ms. Packer's directorial twist raised as many new questions as it answered. Jessica is indeed a model for the self-hating Jew and I personally didn't see it as a happy ending for these particular characters or this particular play. It served more as a possible foreshadowing of
  1. worse things to come in our present century
  2. the increase in the number of people returning to a more strictly observant way of Jewish life.
While it seems fairly evident that Shakespeare had little or no personal acquaintance with Jews and Jewish customs, the anti-Semitism issue will continue to engage scholars and theater goers. Was he anti-Semitic? Could he have been a Marrano Jew? Was he wiser and more humane than the rest of his countrymen, or merely an adaptable playwright writing his villains to best suit the image of villains of his time? These questions will continue to puzzle and provoke controversy.

The Marrano question pertaining to Shakespeare is also signficant of the ending of the current production since the liturgical chant Shylock sings is The Kol-Nidre sung during Yom Kippur was a declaration that makes all commitments made under duress null and void. As Rabbi Deborah Wax of a local congregation (in Williamstown) pointed out in a letter sent to the press after she saw the production, this is why this particular piece of liturgy has often been associated with the Marrano Jews. Forced to convert to Christianity during the Spanish inquisition of 15th, the Kol-Nidre was their way of making that conversion invalid in the eyes of God. Rabbi Wax also felt non-Jewish audience members should be aware of the significance not only of the use of this melody but of the fact that Shylock, who early on in the play has his head covered with a yarmulke arrived bare-headed at the scene where he wants to collect his pound of flesh -- as if to make a statement that he's aware that the justice he demands his atypical of Jewish or Godly behavior.

Another reader, one of the majority who found this production a moving experience, pointed out that the ending was probably "an original twist on another original twist" in that Lawrence Olivier's famous Shylock also sang a Jewish prayer. So he did, but the prayer he sang was the Kaddish for the dead which put quite a different interpretative cast on things. -- e.s.

©Copyright 1998Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp
Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from