Shylock again becomes a ‘comedy’ of eras
By Jules Becker
Is “The Merchant of Venice” anti-Semitic?
Scholars, directors, actors and theatergoers continue to debate that question and diverge greatly in their interpretations of the late 16th century play. The late Shakespeare expert Harold Bloom called the portrayal of Shylock “savagery.” By contrast, many performers since the great 19th century English actor Edmund Kean have often looked to the Jewish moneylender’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech in making the role sympathetic. Now Igor Golyak is taking his cues from the Elizabethan era itself when audiences would have seen Shylock as a ‘villain’ and the play was termed a comedy. The Needham Jewish director recently spoke to the Journal about his take for the present day-set Actors Shakespeare Project at the Boston Center for the Arts — halted by the Hub theater shutdown in the wake of COVID-19 — a revival he hopes to resume late summer or early fall.
“For me, it’s absolutely clear that this play was anti-Semitic,” the Arlekin Players artistic director asserted. “The (Elizabethan) public would have laughed. I think Shakespeare’s genius gave birth to something that changed over time.”
Sympathetic interpretations aside, Golyak observes in a director’s note that “The Merchant of Venice” was a prescription by Goebbels (the Nazis’ propaganda director) as part of the Final Solution and proof of why the Jewish people deserved to be exterminated. In fact, the Nazis made the play a significant part of their radio broadcasts after Kristallnacht (1938) and presented productions in Nazi territory. “In Nazi Germany,” Golyak submitted, “people were booing Shylock.”
In the ASP staging, Golyak has audience members reacting in a variety of ways to reflect their changing reactions. “For me, the journey the audience is going through is even more interesting than what’s going on,” he acknowledged. Here there are applause signs. Golyak recalled theatergoers both applauding and crying after the previews and at a talkback.
Golyak means to challenge audiences. Alluding to Sasha Baron Cohen’s unusual look at anti-Semitism in his in-your-face film “Borat,” he explained, “We took the clichés and stereotypes that people use. The first time Shylock (played by Nael Nacer) comes out, he is wearing a mask and a big nose. This is the way Nazis would see him.”
In the ASP revival, the perception of Shylock is essential. For example, when ship merchant Antonio and his financially strapped best friend Bassanio step offstage, Shylock takes off his mask and becomes a real person. “[That perception of him] is a shock to the audience,” said Golyak.
As for Shakespeare’s audiences, he contended, they would have seen the play as “a comedy that ends with a happy ending.” That “happy ending” would have meant the respective marriages of Bassanio (Alejandro Simoes) and Portia (Gigi Watson) and Lorenzo (Peter Walsh) and Jessica (Anna Bortnik) and the downfall of Shylock for trying to obtain a pound of Antonio’s (Dennis Trainor) flesh without a drop of blood. “For them, [the play and its meaning] was very simple.”
No such simplicity applies today according to Golyak. “I think that after the Holocaust there’s no way to look at the play that way.” In his view, “There is absolutely no evidence that Shylock converted [to Christianity].”
Golyak sees the play moving “from a Venetian Carnivale-cabaret into the Holocaust.” Here he greatly credits scenic and costume designer Nastya Bugaeva, a Moscow Art Theatre professor who also worked on Arlekin’s “The Stone” and “The Seagull.” Working with an eight-member cast — the others: Mara Sidmore as Portia’s maid Nerissa and Jordan Palmer as Shylock’s servant Launcelot Gobbo — Golyak has also relied on the efforts of Washington, D.C. puppet designer Ksenya Litvak. Here secondary characters Gratiano, Salerio and Solanio become puppets. In the revival, he explained, “We do [their dialogue] as a radio show. They’re there to tell what’s happening.”
Summing up his approach, Golyak confessed, “I didn’t try to be provocative but I think [the revival] came out to be.”
Golyak remains very positive about the revival’s future, citing ASP artistic director Chris Edwards’ search for space to remount it, and discussions with the BCA and other venues.
While the ASP production is on hold, Golyak and Arlekin Players recently collected considerable theater gold at the 39th annual Elliot Norton Awards. A strong production of the Marius von Mayenburg post-Holocaust-set play “The Stone” won three small or fringe theater awards —including best production and direction by Golyak, while “The Seagull” won the best design award. The Leo Frank trial-centered show “Parade,” another big small or fringe winner, took home best musical, actor and musical direction honors.
Israeli Stage’s premiere of “The Return” won best fringe or small theater actor honors (Nael Nacer). Huntington Theatre Company’s presentation of “Indecent,” a Paula Vogel play dealing with the controversy surrounding the Sholem Asch play “God of Vengeance,” won the best visiting production award. Ben Levi Ross took home the best visiting actor award for his portrayal of the title character in the tour of “Dear Evan Hansen” (presented by Broadway in Boston). The versatile actor Gabriel Kuttner was remembered during the virtual ceremony, as was the gifted Johnny Lee Davenport, the posthumous winner of the Norton Award recognizing sustained excellence.
For a complete list of winners, go to http://www.elliotnortonawards.com.