The Merchant of Venice at Wright State

In rehearsal, Chelsey Cavender as Jessica and Andrew Quiett as Shylock in Wright State’s production of Merchant of Venice

By Ted Merwin, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer

He’s been called the epitome of evil, a Dracula-like character who battens on human flesh. Yet others see him as a victim of horrible injustice, deserving of compassion and pity.

Whether you love him or hate him, the Jewish moneylender at the heart of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is without a doubt the most famous — or infamous — Jewish character in Western literature and culture. Laurence Olivier put it best, calling Merchant “horrid, cruel, and one of the most popular plays in the collected works of Shakespeare.”

Now Shylock strides the stage at Wright State, in a production sure to revive probing questions of moral responsibility and the proper use of political and financial power. At a time when global antisemitism is on the rise, and in which “predatory lending” is blamed for much of our country’s economic woes, Merchant holds up a mirror to our age.

In Merchant, written toward the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the title character, Antonio, borrows money from Shylock, under the condition that a pound of Antonio’s flesh be considered collateral for the loan.

Antonio uses the money to aid his friend Bassanio, who is courting Portia, an heiress in the upscale city of Belmont. After Shylock’s beloved daughter, Jessica, abandons him and runs off with a Christian, a crazed Shylock demands literal payment of the bond.

In the climactic trial scene, Shylock and Antonio battle over how the loan is to be repaid, and Shylock is ultimately vanquished: stripped of his property and his religion.

Directing the Wright State production is Associate Prof. Sandra Crews, whose resumé at the university includes productions of The Diary of Anne Frank, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, and Dancing at Lughnasa.

Crews, who is Jewish and a self-described “red diaper baby” whose parents were active in the Communist Party in America, has staged this Merchant as a mix of three settings: Nazi Germany, contemporary corporate America, and the 2009 South African sci fi film District 9 (the plot of which hinges on sick aliens being quarantined in a government camp).

“When you’re not part of a marginalized community,” Crews believes, “you can go on with your petty, everyday life.” To give the play a more contemporary spin, Crews has taken liberties with the text, cutting some lines and moving others around. She is also “gender-bending” some of the roles, casting them with students of the opposite gender. For example, Crews changed the character of Antonio to a woman, Antonia.

Stuart McDowell is the chair of the Department of Theatre, Dance and Motion Pictures at Wright State and a founder of the Riverside Shakespeare Company in New York. He said the play was chosen, as all the productions are, by a committee of faculty, staff and students.

“We do a Shakespeare play only every two or three years,” McDowell says. “It takes substantial training. They do much less Shakespeare in high school than when I was growing up in the 1960s, when Shakespeare was much more in vogue.”

McDowell is aware that the depiction of the greedy Jewish moneylender in the play “pushes racial buttons” for many audience members. He points out, though, that many prominent Jewish actors, from Jacob Adler to Henry Goodman, have performed in the role. And he notes that the English were accustomed to far worse portrayals of Jews on their stage, such as in Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, in which the title character is a traitor and mass murderer. Set next to Jew of Malta, McDowell says, Merchant is “comparatively philosemitic.

“While many of the patrons and audience members of the student productions are Jewish, McDowell says, relatively few of the students are.

Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice as a comedy. Shown here in rehearsal at Wright State (L to R): Tyler Edwards, Ian Blanco, Jenyth Rosati, Cameron Blankenship, Lauren Deaton.

“It’s helpful for students to experience this play,” he says, “especially if they come from a more rural or Gentile high school,” in which they have little familiarity with Jews. “We need to put on plays that deal with uncomfortable subjects that are part of our world,” he adds. “We can’t pretend that antisemitism has gone away just because we don’t portray it on the stage.”

Carol Mejia-LaPerle teaches Renaissance drama in the English Department at Wright State. She is encouraging the students this quarter in her Teaching Shakespeare Through Analysis and Performance course to attend the production of Merchant, which she interprets as a play about the complexity of human relationships.

While Shylock insists upon his bond, she notes, the Christian characters use the language of being  “bound” to one another.

“The Christians in the play practice a kind of emotional usury,” Mejia-LaPerle explains. “The emotional contracts between them are just as troubling as the literal contract that Shylock holds over Antonio. How different is their so-called generosity from Shylock’s demands?”

While Portia accuses Shylock of not tempering justice with mercy, she ultimately “inflicts on him the most appalling use of justice, with no mercy whatsoever.” Ultimately, the Christians “exorcise” Shylock from Venice, despite his showing how “essential he is to that society in the capital that he raises,” Mejia-LaPerle says.

Ben Miller, a junior from Hilliard, is understudying the role of Shylock. Miller concedes that he was caught off guard, when he first read the play, by the amount of antisemitism that it contains.

“Other characters made Shylock out to be more a villain than he actually was,” Miller says. “He’s just as much a victim. It’s very important for society to be aware that antisemitism is still prevalent today.”

Playing Portia is Nicole Tompkins, a junior from South Bend, Ind. She predicts that audience members will “walk away with lots of questions about whether or not anything was resolved at the end of the play,” even after Shylock’s banishment. “The audience is clearly going to feel for Shylock,” she says. “The play shows colorings of things that happened in this country during the Civil Rights movement or even now after 9/11 with people being judged in certain ways. Look at Occupy Dayton, with people still fighting for their rights. The questions raised by the play don’t pertain only to the time in which it was written.”

Echoing these sentiments is Tess Talbot, a senior from Cincinnati, who apprenticed last summer with the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company in Boston. Talbot, who plays Antonia, sees the play as “coinciding with America today.”

The challenge, Talbot says, is “how to present this material in a way that won’t offend anyone, but make them think about how they treat others and how they want to be treated. I have to wonder what makes my character do these things to condemn Shylock to Christianity — what happens to make me go that far.”

Ted Merwin has served for the last 11 years as theatre critic for The New York Jewish Week. He teaches religion/Judaic studies at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.

Wright State University presents The Merchant Of Venice Feb. 16-26 in the Festival Playhouse, Creative Arts Center. For tickets, call the box office at 775-2500.

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