A comedy of flesh, bias and second thoughts
By LARRY PARNASS, Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 6, 2004 --
HADLEY - When the Hampshire Shakespeare Company completes its run of ''The Merchant of Venice'' on Sunday, Gratiano will
still get the last word. The afternoon before that final 7 p.m. performance, the play's anti-Semitic content will be the
thing that warrants discussion.
It is very Valley to order up a meeting when offense looms. To reach the promised ''review,'' skip ahead a few paragraphs.
Before the first lines were uttered to a paying crowd June 23, this production has demanded preambles.
As they prepared to present the story of a Venice merchant's strange collateral - a pound of his own flesh as a guarantee
for Shylock's loan to a third party, Bassanio - members of the company got out ahead on the matter of the play's contempt
In an interview last month, director Lucinda Kidder detailed the ways in which Hampshire Shakespeare developed an approach
to a play some others dare not touch.
People interested in such concerns can attend Sunday's program at the Center for Renaissance Studies in Amherst. It will be
led by the center's chief, Arthur Kinney, and include Harley Erdman, chairman of the theater department at the University
of Massachusetts, Rabbi David Bauer of the Jewish Community of Amherst and Anthony Burton, a Shakespeare scholar.
For a shorter course, read Burton's essay in the production's program and a note there by Kidder.
Clearly, there is much to think about while watching this comedy, but no reason to feel dirtied by the experience. The
play depicts the anti-Jewish attitudes of the time it presents, but doesn't endorse any of it.
Burton, who advised this cast on the play's essential elements, makes a strong argument in his program note that Shylock's
suffering draws attention from the play's bigger theme in the author's time: the actions of the merchant, Antonio, who was
part of a mercantile class whose ascendancy was grabbing power from the military aristocracy and, Burton suggests, diluting
older human values.
After all, the play is called ''The Merchant of Venice,'' not ''The Usurer of Venice.''
Maybe on Monday, after the show closes, there should be a support group for aggrieved capitalists, their greedy butts
freshly kicked by one William Shakespeare.
Cue the review.
This nuanced production presents life, not packaged themes pre-wired with warning lights.
Merchant Antonio, a man of means but no liquidity, agrees to help his friend Bassanio come up with the cash that chum
needs to woo a rich lady, Portia. The strange terms they strike make sense, when you see how estranged the merchant and
moneylender are, socially. Suddenly, Shylock seems to be in the business of revenge.
Shylock, played with a pained dignity by Walter Carroll, seizes upon a ''pound of flesh'' of his borrower because, as
the interplay makes clear, that's about the only way he can vault the chasm separating Jews and Christians and exist for
a moment on the same plane as the wealthy Venetian.
What seems an easy gamble for Antonio goes bad when his fleet of trading vessels, dispatched around the globe, are all
said to come to harm.
Busted, he soon enough must bare his chest, in a trial, to Shylock's long knife.
Before, there is Bassanio's comic wooing of Portia, which follows two other suitors' attempts to solve a riddle by which
the lady's father seems to have artfully locked away her hand of marriage. This is the romance enabled by the merchant's
It is the comic sweetmeat inside the merchant's gamier bargain.
Susan Boyle Dzuira's Portia owns a saucy and earthy heart. Shylock's daughter Jessica (Margot Isman) is left to be far
more a lady, though, after her mixed marriage to Lorenzo (Macklen Makhloghi) she is debased and called an infidel by
Christians unable to recognize actual nobility.
In that way, the production reveals this time's anti-Semitism for the ignorance such bias always represents.
Two failed suitors, Kahil Gonzalez-Garcia as the Prince of Morocco and Daniel Hirsch as the Prince of Aragon, star in
two funny scenes in which audiences get to appreciate Portia's gimlet-eyed view of life. Hirsch plays the comedy allowed
his character to the hilt.
Another corner of comedy here, the sassiness of the clown Launcelot, was especially rich, due to Steve Henderson's
confident physicality. He and Steve Angel, the Venetian Gratiano, both bring considerable vocal strength to their acting.
They delivered the best feel for the naturalness in Shakespeare's language in the performance I saw Friday.
Michael Buchanan and Paul de Vries, as Salarino and Salanio, enacted a witheringly funny - and of course odious - imitation
of Shylock's emotional collapse, after learning of his daughter Jessica's elopement with Lorenzo, a Christian. On leaving,
sweet Jessica breaks her father's bank as well as his heart, absconding with ample loot.
Portia and her aide, Nerissa (played with verve by Tary Coppola) have a surprise role in the play's last act, when they
arrive in disguise to lend legal advice to the Duke, as he considers Shylock's legal claim that Antonio must pay the piper
on the poundage.
You can see from what happens why courtrooms are such dramatic staples. This story's twists put one character and then
another at the razor's edge.
Bassanio, who rushes to the court with his new lady's riches, arrives intent on freeing his friend, who is sure to die,
because the flesh, accounting to the bargain, must come from the area closest to the heart.
The moment throbs with love and money both. Angel's Gratiano wants to see Shylock fail. His hatred for Shylock is palpable.
By insisting that Gratiano spit his anti-Semitic venom - and not let it pass undervoiced - this production shows courage.
It would be wrong to make this play more palatable by letting it seem less anti-Jewish.
The prejudices play openly. One sort divides Christians from Jews. But other unlovely attitudes, for instance that money
should measure human value, makes ''The Merchant of Venice'' a disquieting comedy.
''The Merchant of Venice'' resumes Wednesday and runs through Sunday at 7 p.m. at the Hartsbrook School on Bay Road in
Hadley. Tickets are $15, or $10 for students and seniors and $6 for those 18 and under.
To make reservations, visit www.hampshireshakespeare.org.
The Sunday afternoon forum, ''Before and After the Holocaust: Issues in Staging Shakespeare's Shylock,'' will be held at
2 p.m. at 650 East Pleasant St., Amherst.
''Hamlet'' opens with previews July 14 and 15.