By Sarah Breger; Interview by Sophie Taylor
To stage The Merchant of Venice is courageous; to stage The Merchant of Venice so soon after the celebrated Al Pacino-led performance on Broadway even more so. The Washington Shakespeare Theatre’s production—a re-imagining of the play in 1920s New York—certainly does not lack for guts, but this madcap romp through the Lower East Side yields mixed results.
In Director Ethan McSweeny’s beautifully staged production, Venice is New York, Antonio and his fellow gentry are Italian Mafioso—and the Jews? Well, they seem to be Lower East Side Hasidim. Ignoring the fact that the twenties were glory days for Jewish mobsters (think Bugsy Siegal, Meir Lansky et al.) McSweeny chooses to dress his Jews in beards and payos, playing them as insular ultra-Orthodox. (This was especially disappointing for me, since I was secretly hoping Shylock would be a 1920s secular Yiddishist).
Shylock himself is a diminutive man, soft-spoken, the weight of the world on his shoulders. Mark Nelson plays him well as a man weary of society’s cruelty. His Shylock isn’t overly sympathetic or noble: he’s simply tired. McSweeny does not seem overly concerned with Shylock’s ambiguous morality, often rolling over uncomfortable dialogue or painful moments. In some ways this refusal to be a Shylock apologist is a brave move, leaving the audience free to look at the play through other lenses, such as class, the complex relationship between people and money, and the issue of women as property (both Jessica and Portia are sought out both for their beauty and for their wealth).
Sidelining the Jewish question also allows us to laugh, and McSweeny does put on a funny show. The scenes in Belmont with Portia and her suitors—the Prince of Morocco as a flying baron and the foppish Prince of Aragon, a Maltese in tow—are as clever as any of Shakespeare’s comedies.
The Merchant of Venice is always a confusing and uncomfortable play to watch, and McSweeny’s production unfortunately doesn’t rise to embrace all its complexities. As one friend who saw the production put it: “I’m glad I’ve now seen The Merchant of Venice. But I never want to see it again.” -Sarah Breger
Moment: What appeals to you about Shylock?
Mark Nelson: Blazing poetry. And a kind of perverse integrity in a world of characters with no integrity. Also, the idea that you can care for and even root for a hated outsider— that Shakespeare actually makes us understand him. I’ve always watched the play thinking, I like the ‘bad guy’ better than the ‘good guys.’
In some ways, Jessica’s desire to escape her own Judaism is more disturbing than Shylock’s character.
I think she’s a great character, but the most interesting thing about her to me is her confusion, her ambivalence; about her father, about leaving, about Lorenzo. That love scene in the fifth act between Jessica and Lorenzo is not a love scene—it’s about betrayal. She’s wondering about what moved her to elope, what she’s left behind, and how to go on in a world that will never really embrace her. She can’t assimilate entirely, and she can’t delete her past.
Do you see Shylock’s integrity in his refusal to assimilate?