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New production of “Merchant of Venice” re-imagines Shylock

Journal Correspondent

“The production has great sympathy for Shylock,” says John Rothman, who plays Shylock.

JUNE 21, 2018, HANOVER, N.H. – Is Shylock an anti-Semitic stereotype, or something more? Does Shakespeare see him as the villain of “The Merchant of Venice”? Is he a suffering father agonizing over the departure of his daughter Jessica with her Christian lover Lorenzo? Could he be a Jewish outsider scapegoated by the seemingly merciful Portia in a court case that turns into legalistic revenge? All of these questions come to mind at New York-based Compagnia de’ Colombari’s distinctive revival of what is arguably Shakespeare’s most intriguing problem play, which recently showed at Dartmouth College.

I spoke to Dartmouth professor of Jewish studies Susannah Heschel, who analyzes the play with her students in the second part of her “History and Culture of the Jews” course, and John Rothman, one of the actors playing Shylock in this production about Shylock, Shakespeare’s views, the revival itself, and their own respective takes.

Heschel views Shylock more sympathetically than she does Portia. “Shylock is incredibly isolated,” she observed. “I see him as an Old Testament figure almost.” She doubts that Shakespeare was anti-Semitic, and contends that, “For me, act four [where Portia disguises herself as a lawyer] indicates something different from the way the play is normally read.” Heschel argued that Portia’s stipulation that Shylock will forfeit everything if he spills a drop of Antonio’s blood in collecting his pound of flesh is “hardly an expression of Christian mercy.”
“He’s (Shylock’s) trapped by his total reliance on the law,” she added.

Actor John Rothman endorsed director Karin Coonrod’s approach. “The production has great sympathy for Shylock,” he reflected, and continued, “Shylock would have lived in that ghetto, surrounded by a hostile city – but a city bustling with commerce and dependent on credit and money lenders. The anti-Semitism in the play reflects an historical reality and a present reality, and its consequences for Shylock on a personal level are extreme.” Rothman maintained that the production regards Shylock as an outsider more than as a specific Jew.

“I see him [Shylock] as an Old Testament figure almost,” says Susannah Heschel, professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth.

What makes the production particularly distinctive is the presence of four actors and an actress playing Shylock at different moments. As Rothman explained, “All of the Shylocks come together after Jessica runs off with Lorenzo. It’s like a relay race.” He added that the actors look as though they are davening here. Besides Rothman, who plays Shylock #5 and Jewish countryman Tubal, the quintet includes Sorab Wadia (#1), Frank Rodriguez (#2), Trazana Beverley (#3) and Michael Rogers (#4). Linda Powell is Portia, and Brazilian Jewish actor Sandro Isaack plays Antonio. Klezmatics founder Frank London is directing an on stage sextet playing his original score and violin duos by Corelli and Bartok.

“The Merchant of Venice,” presented by Compagnia de’ Colombari at BEMA Outdoor Amphitheater, Hopkins Center for the Arts, Dartmouth
College, Hanover, NH, June 26-28. hop.dartmouth.edu or 603-646-2422.

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