It's almost impossible to put on Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice today; if one excises the loathsome anti-Semitism from the play, one can't help but do violence to its original meaning. Laurence Olivier managed to virtually reconstruct the play's intentions by cutting lines and casting all the characters except Shylock the Jew in a despicable light. But by making anti-Semitism the villain of the piece, he utterly destroyed the love story, neutered the humor and, more important, undermined the deeper lessons about hate, revenge and mercy that save the play from ignominy.
Enter the Ad Hoc Theatre Company with an honest, yet still scathing, production of this most ethically difficult of all of Shakespeare's works. It still makes one wince, but great care has been taken to reveal how hate blunts people's more humane impulses.
The story concerns a friendship between Antonio, the rich merchant of Venice, and a good-hearted young spendthrift named Bassanio who is in love with a mysterious heiress. Bassanio borrows a large sum of money from Shylock, a Jewish money lender much vilified by Antonio, in order to court Portia. Anticipating the return of six of his merchant ships within the month, Antonio guarantees Bassanio's debt. But Shylock hates Antonio for all the cruel disrespect and slander he has heaped on him, and insists in the surety bond that should Antonio fail to pay the debt when it is due, he will forfeit a pound of his own flesh.
Bassanio then goes off to court and win Portia, an endeavor complicated by Portia's wise old dad, who stipulated in his will that the only man who may have Portia is the one who guesses in which of three caskets lies her portrait. Of Portia's many suitors, only Bassanio is worthy, and so he wins Portia. But meanwhile, word comes that his friend Antonio's ships have all been lost.
While all of this is going on, Shylock's daughter Jessica steals her father's jewels and money and elopes with her Christian lover. The loss of his daughter to people who have reviled and persecuted him, plus the loss of riches that had protected him from them, makes Shylock wild with rage and despair. He calls in his bond, demanding that Antonio pay him a pound of flesh.
The merchant sends for Bassanio, on whose account he incurred the debt, and thus Portia learns of Antonio's distress. Disguised as a young lawyer, she enters the court and argues for mercy in one of the most compelling of all Shakespeare's ethical speeches. When Shylock still refuses to relent, she pulls an extravagant lawyer's trick on him; it may not be truly just, but it saves the merchant's life. And Shylock is saved from utter ruin only by Antonio's mercy (an unbelievable stretch, considering how cruel Antonio has been to Shylock).
Director James Gale had the good sense to cast himself as Shylock. His is a less sympathetic performance than Olivier's, but it is truer to the better spirit of the play. Watching Gale create delicate mannerisms--breathing clear motivation into every word--and building a human being from the inside out is both delightful and moving.
His next best decision was to cast the exquisite Rebekah Buric as Portia. She is literally perfect in the role, combining powerful intelligence, girlish joie de vivre and an impish wit into her portrayal. But Kevin Bartlett as the merchant and Richard Nelson as Bassanio are terrific, too. Nelson and Buric create quite a chemical reaction together, and Bartlett's performance is sophisticated and always engaging.
Gale handles the ethnic slurs that run through the play with an even hand, letting the characters who make them reveal themselves, but never allowing them to seem warm or noble enough to merit our respect. We never feel that these horrendous sentiments are right, but rather that they are the evident cause for one human being's descent into rage.
It's a fine line Gale walks, but he walks it well. Shylock, despised and persecuted, is poisoned by the hatred and bigotry of the dominant culture. We understand in the end why he seeks revenge, and without ever conceding him right, we can see what forces have driven him to such extremity. We have seen him "more sinned against than sinning," and we have seen him broken--an outrage that haunts the whole dramatic experience.