BOSTON – Is “The Merchant of Venice” a ‘problem play?’
Igor Golyak believes it is—but not in the way that many scholars and buffs see it.
“The line ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ was not posed as a real question until the 19th century,” observes the Russian-Jewish Arlekin Players artistic director in his director’s note for the season-opening Actors’ Shakespeare Project revival. It’s a “reboot” of a 2020 production cut short by the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Charlestown theater company’s website.
As Golyak contends: “In staging this ‘problem play’ today, we cannot avoid taking into account both the history of the Holocaust and the persistence of antisemitism in our own time.”
While not claiming the author was antisemitic, Golyak is staging the play as though Elizabethan England (where Jews were officially banished from 1290-1656) is watching a work that Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels proscribed as part of the Final Solution. Audiences in the Boston Center for the Arts’ Plaza Theatre should find this inventive and provocative revival powerfully disturbing.
The inventiveness and provocation begin right from the start. Theatergoers, treated as those they are attending a performance during the original Globe Theater run, are advised to cheer for the title merchant—namely Christian Antonio—and boo the purported villain—namely the Jewish moneylender Shylock.
Costumes send messages (credit designer Nastya Bugaeva) such as Shylock dressed in basic black while wearing a large nose-bearing stereotypical wig (tellingly removed at moments of pathos), and his mocking antisemitic servant Launcelot Gobbo (played with both nastiness and jaunty moves by Jordan Palmer) who sports a harlequin-suggesting white and red outfit and tri-corner hat.
Designer Ksenya Litvak adorned Antonio’s arms with puppets representing Antonio’s friends Solanio and Salerio, who share his anti-Shylock sentiments. Clearly, director Golyak means to challenge audiences to the kind of moments of truth that eluded Elizabethan theatergoers merely ‘enjoying’ the proceedings.
As always, those proceedings eventually get around to Antonio and best friend Bassanio’s relationship and financial considerations.
Dennis Trainor’s emotional Antonio seems to bring a lover’s feeling when holding Bassanio’s hand in the early going. While Bassanio looks forward to wedding his fiancée Portia, his reaction as Shylock prepares to cut Antonio’s flesh—an extended moment of deep suffering on the Plaza Theatre floor—might indicate the character’s bisexual preference.
Nael Nacer’s stunningly sadistic moves here as Shylock—brandishing a very large knife—and Jesse Hinson’s contrastingly affecting sadness make the ‘pound of flesh’ passage in this revival the most haunting this critic has ever seen. Golyak cleverly adds an element of absurdity to the anti-Shylock proceedings by having a mask represent the presiding Duke.
Anti-Shylock messages emerge as well in his conflict with daughter Jessica.
In Golyak’s unsparing conception, Shylock actually chains Jessica. Later, her boyfriend Lorenzo and she call to mind Romeo and Juliet in a romantic scene. Anna Bortnick is strikingly spirited and defiant as Jessica. Peter Walsh visually demonstrates Lorenzo’s appeal to her with impressive pushups and sit-ups. Here, as before, the Plaza Theatre crowd is invited a la Shakespeare’s audience to ”Give the kids a hand.”
Golyak remains relentless in his approach throughout the play. As in his director’s note, Nacer delivers the famous “hath not a Jew eyes” with a furor that the Elizabethan audiences would boo. The determined director even calls particular attention to Shylock kinsman Tuval as someone pleased with the wreck of Antonio’s ship.
The most haunting moments, though, follow the court win of disguised Portia and her sidekick Nerissa (played with tenacity by Gigi Watson and Darya Denisova respectively) and ‘guilty’ Shylock ending up a prisoner. Golyak has him end up in a glass booth with Jewish stars on it. This director’s touch may call to mind the play and/or movie “The Man in the Glass Booth” in which the ‘man’ is Nazi mass murderer Adolf Eichmann. Golyak may be brilliantly suggesting an Orwellian twisted image of Shylock as a brutal devil in the eyes of the play’s antisemites (Think of ongoing antisemitic claims about Jews being responsible for 9/11).
The director’s warning about on-going hatred leading to the atrocities of the Holocaust comes to full expression with gas seeming to enter the booth as the Yizkor (remembrance) prayer “El Maleh Rachamim” can be heard (kudos to Jeff Adelberg’s lighting and Dewey Dellay’s sound).
No matter how you feel about Shakespeare and the play, Golyak’s risk-taking revival for Actors’ Shakespeare Project should serve as a wake-up call to fight antisemitism in particular and all forms of hatred—the true ‘problem.’
“The Merchant of Venice,” Actors’ Shakespeare Project, Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through Oct. 17. For more information, call 617-933-8600 or visit bostontheatrescene.com.