Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Rosh Hashanah

Mr. Griset has added to the chorus praising “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” with his review this week. Sycamore Rouge kicked off its season last weekend with the Langston Hughes-oriented joint, “Simply Heavenly,” that received a less than stellar assessment from Ms. Haubenstock.

The folks at Henley Street are initiating what sounds like an intriguing series of talk-backs this weekend and their “Merchant of Venice” is a great show to kick it off with. This is a show that almost demands conversation and processing. I really admire James Ricks and his company for choosing this show to produce and then really committing to a serious re-imagining of the work by placing it in a modern context.

My review in Style is going to be fairly short – once upon a time I would have had 500 to 600 words for a review. This one had to be trimmed to 350. It’s the sad reality of print journalism these days and particularly brutal when you are trying to cover any Shakespeare, let alone this Shakespeare. So I may talk about “Merchant” a couple of times in this space to flesh out some of my thoughts.

First off, it’s kind of astounding that the show will be running through the Jewish high holy days (Happy Rosh Hashanah, y’all!) The anti-Semitism in the play is bracing, there’s no getting around it. Mr. Ricks has said he has put the most clear anti-Semitic sentiments in the mouths of the lowest class characters, making the issue a bit more about class rather than overall cultural prejudice. I don’t know that this choice comes across so clearly, particularly in the modern context where, even though there are clearly class lines, we are told and taught that they don’t exist.

I also found the secondary characters laughing during Shylock’s “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech disconcerting. Beyond this being one of the more famous monologues in the canon, this speech is also a universal plea for understanding (and a little vengeance) on behalf of all victims of persecution. This seemed like part of the lower class idea, given that the snickerers were patrons at a bar, and as such was consistent in theory. But in practice, I simply didn’t like it.

However, on the flip side, there were many ways I thought the anti-Semitism issue was handled masterfully. Jeff Clevenger’s performance is exceptional. I saw his actions not at all as a rabid anti-Christian but as a battered individual, pushed by the last straw of his daughter’s elopement to try to exact brutal retribution against a world that had stolen his wife, employee, dignity, and finally, his daughter. Clevenger never lets you forget Shylock’s basic humanity.

Also, the infamous court scene had a significant change from the original text (unless I missed it somehow) in that Shylock was not forced to convert to Christianity, among all of the other indignities he is forced to submit to. Finally, there is the issue of Jessica. Her deportment at the play’s end is distinctly different from Jessicas I’ve seen in other productions. I won’t spoil this for you in case you haven’t seen it but it isn’t expected given her economic situation at the play’s end.

And, in the end, this is a play largely about economics, or the “commidification of relationships” as Mr. Ricks says in his director’s notes. As such, I think making Antonio into a female character is also a masterful change and one I may talk about further in another post.

But before I sign off and since I have “merchants” on my mind, I really am overdue in giving a shout out to the sponsors of the RTCC awards this year. We’ve really had a great stepping up of people in commercial ventures who are supporting the event. Among those who are helping us this year are Style Weekly magazine, which is giving us a bunch of advertising both online and in print as well as hosting the pre-event reception; 103.7 The River, a radio station guided by the fabulous Melissa Chase who has promised to put the word out about us this year; Gay, which is also providing us with scads of online advertising; Popkin Tavern, which is hosting the pre-event reception this year; Carreras Jewelers, which of course donated the great raffle prize of a gorgeous diamond necklace; and the extremely talented Jay Paul who is once again donating his photographic services to help memorialize the event.

Given how many “merchants” we have on board this year (not to mention the non-profits also supporting us, which I will at some other point), I’m a little surprised at the somewhat anemic ticket sales so far. Are people holding out until the last couple of weeks? Or have the awards kind of run their course and the excitement has passed? I’m really curious.

Regardless, I’m still excited about the big night and, while I’ll be disappointed if fewer people come than last year, I’ll also have a better chance at going home with that little Carreras bauble…


Henley Street Theatre said...

Hi Dave,

Haven't visited your blog in forever, but after having had the link sent to me about 300 times in the last half hour, I figured I might as well pop round.
Thanks for expounding on your brief review and I'm sorry they are cutting you down to size. Soon you'll be writing reviews such as: "Play good. Costumes bad. Go see."
Anyway, I just thought I'd throw in my explanation for the famous speech. It's always fun doing the context shifting because in the back of my mind there are always my classicist teachings coming up against my desire to bring some new life to a problematic play. Fortunately, I am a firm believer that I can always have my cake and wash my hair with it too. I am also a firm believer that theatre is a laboratory. Especially with the Shakespeare - otherwise, what the hell are we doing this for? To that extent, I'll address what is the popular conception surrounding the 'famous jew speech'. That it is a universal plea for tolerance and understanding is very much a piece of 20th century post-holocaust thinking, as I expressed in my director's notes. I'm pretty sure most scholars will agree with that assessment. (See Andrew Gurr, John Berryman, or even the stodgy old Harold Bloom) In Shakespeare's day, Shylock was played absurdly with no smack of humanity or irony whatso'er. He was a buffon and his text supports that he is a villain through and through, even in the famous speech. It's only been in the 20th and 21st century that this role has begun to take on more human form. As for the speech itself, Shylock is doing nothing more than rationalizing his own revenge. Plain and simple. It's a brilliant speech, no arguing that, that offers a pretty interesting bit of rhetorical craftiness to chew on. To use a humanistic tactic to rationalize your own viciousness is definitely awesome in every way, especially for the actor playing it. But don't kid yourself. This speech is not Shakespeare pressing understanding and compassion towards the persecuted. And neither is Shylock for that matter. You need look no further than any reference where Shakespeare likens someone to a Jew to understand that Jews were not even second class citizens.

The idea to have Salanio and Salerio chuckling at him during the speech was to drive the actual thesis statement of the famous speech home. You may have noticed the two men shut right up the second he said, "And if you wrong us, do we not revenge?" That is the point he is driving to and that is what we were playing with in that moment. Second layer of that: based on the fact that since in the modern business world the bottom line is always 'total net value X', throwing out something as absurd as, 'she hates me because I'm a Jew' is all the more preposterous. They're not tittering because they're racist, they're tittering because they don't take him seriously as a businessman or a person. Especially when you say it to the two characters (who are actually Antonia's colleagues, not lesser characters) to whom he said it: two openly gay men, one of whom is black. To have them chuckling through this famous speech which you already know brought a certain dynamic that punched up his self-victimization and the final point which stop them cold. It's from that point that he begins to adopt all kinds of modes of rationalization, including a religion which he is not actively observant of at the top of the play.
I'm not going to lie though, I'm glad you found it disconcerting. :)
As you rightly observed, it's not always easy to make these things clear, especially given the language you have to work with. But that's what we were going for and my attempted explanation...

Anyway, I don't usually like blogs, but I can never resist a chance to blabber about Shakespeare. Thanks for posting. And now, back into the shadows....
See you at the Artsies.


Dave T said...

I"m glad you didn't resist the urge to 'blather.' Your comments are very enlightening. There are so many themes and cross-currents in this play, i think it makes conversation afterwards almost a necessity.

I appreciate being warned off the popular conception about the "prick / bleed" scene and you pointing out the context for the characters who are responding to it. I had frankly overlooked that. Also, i was clearly thrown off by my empathy for Shylock to see the rationalization he's going through.

I'm very intrigued by your treatment of Jessica and as time has permitted over the past few days, I've been trying to read up on act 5, scene 1 and it's many interpretations. I've read some commentators referring to the 'game' between Lorenzo and jessica as litte more than sweet nothings, with the lovers being unaware of the more sinister shades of meanings in the famous lovers they reference.

But it seems clear to me that there is subtext there and they must know the tragedies they are referencing. However, you seem to have taken their discord to a whole level in your production. I haven't read any interpretation that goes that far. Is your vision of this scene wholely your own or is there some reference for it? I think it's a very bold choice and I applaud you for it.

Dave T said...

...whole new level... I meant to say (commenting on my phone is a pain!)

Here's an interesting piece on Jessica and Lorenzo, just FYI:

Henley Street Theatre said...

Yeah, this play offers up a whole lot of opportunity for discussion...

Yes, the Jessica and Lorenzo story is wide open territory as far as I'm concerned. Their language is a pretty frilly, full of heavy metaphor and indirect action that usually lulls the audience into a fuzzy fugue-like state. Also, that big scene at the end of the play where they play the 'night game' is primarily designed to give the actors playing Portia and Nerissa time to change back into women for the final reconciliation scene. So, why make it just some stupid 7 minute flirtation full of obscure mythology references? Why NOT give that relationship an arc and a life? When it's innocent sweet nothings and they are nothing more than a lovey satellite to the others, it's not active and it doesn't serve the major themes of the play, let alone the story. They're talking furniture. So we took that ambiguous language and tied it in the world we were creating. Every relationship on stage has some kind of financial interest. So then Jessica and Lorenzo become something that isn't tied up a neat little Shakespearean bow, but rather transformed into something a little more tragic - as relationships have been known to do... Hopefully it creates polarity between the happy leads, painting a relationship that is toxified by the financial interest, rather than magically giving it life. It's easily justified by the language and gives actors something to sink their teeth into, rather than just doing 'Talking Head Shakespeare'. Which I hate.

And yes, there is precedent for this interpretation. I'd love to take credit for it, but there have been a few famous productions that have taken a similar approach to varying degrees. I've never seen one, I've only ever read about them. But the idea obviously had an effect on me. The actors playing those parts were pretty grateful to play around with an actual set of dramatic action and intention, rather than something that didn't ring true to them. So, that's good...
I haven't yet read of another female Antonio production though. I find that very surprising, but for the time being I'm pretending that it's an original idea. :)

eraserhead said...

Having seen "Merchant" last night after reading this exchange added to my enjoyment of the show. I have to say that I come down as finding Mr. Ricks' vision incredibly compelling. It didn't hurt to have a great cast pulling it off.