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[Theater reviews]

Venetian bind
Shylock has his well-deserved day


Written and performed by Gareth Armstrong. Directed by Frank Barrie. Original music by Simon Slater. Presented by the Jewish Theatre of New England at the Leventhal-Sidman Jewish Community Center. (Closed.)

Is there a more famous fictional Jew the other side of Tevye than Shylock? Yet Shakespeare’s notorious " pound of flesh " moneylender isn’t even the title character in his own play: the real " Merchant of Venice " is Antonio, whom hardly anybody remembers. But now, thanks to Welsh-born Royal Shakespeare Company alumnus Gareth Armstrong, Shylock has his own one-person show. It’s traveled in Europe and through much of America, and last weekend it touched down in Newton, where he got to sound off about Jews in Venice, Jews in the rest of Europe, Jews in Merchant (their only appearance in Shakespeare), and the way he’s been portrayed over the past 400 years.

Well, sort of. The narrator here is not Shylock but a man who identifies himself as Shylock’s friend. " Actually, his only friend. I play Tubal in The Merchant of Venice. TUBAL. T-U-B-A-L. One scene, eight lines. " Dressed in a white shirt (not tucked in), a black vest, and black trousers, with a long black coat and felt hat that he takes off and puts back on, the balding Armstrong looks a bit like Patrick Stewart with a beard, and he sounds like Stewart crossed with Jerry Seinfeld. His stage set is simple: a trunk stenciled with Merchant of Venice (from which he pulls the ginger wig and hook nose that for centuries were de rigueur for stage Jews), a central chair, a chair next to a small round table on which lie Il pecorone (the Italian tale that was Shakespeare’s immediate source), Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (whose title character, Barabas, makes Shylock look like Santa Claus), and a Gideon Bible.

Pathos alternating with humor, Tubal fills in the background to The Merchant of Venice. We’re reminded how in 1190, just before Passover, the Jews of York were butchered for being too rich; how in 1290 Edward I hit on the " final solution " to the Jewish question by expelling them from England; how they were subsequently expelled from France, Spain, and Portugal; how in Venice they were confined to a ghetto and forced to wear badges; and how " moneylending was forbidden to Christians, so they let Jews do it. " After pointing out that " Shakespeare never even met a Jew — not officially " (there were no official Jews in Elizabethan England), Tubal takes us through the highlights of Shylock’s role, underlining Antonio’s contempt for the moneylender, explaining how everyone thought the pound-of-flesh idea was a joke ( " Actually, a few Jewish jokes might have livened things up a bit " ), skipping back to Marlowe and English mystery plays and even (taking up that Gideon Bible) the Jews who, it’s said, told Pilate to crucify Jesus ( " Two thousand years of Jewish persecution were based on that passage " ). He gives us a contemporary slant on Shylock and daughter Jessica: " Single parent, ethnic minority, stressful job, lived in a ghetto — of course he was a strict father! " And masques like the one through which Lorenzo steals Jessica away? Just an excuse for drunken frat-boy bad behavior.

So it goes — whenever real life becomes too horrifying ( " In 1946, 40 Polish Jews were killed by Polish Christians — a drop in the ocean " ), Tubal brings us back to the safety of the theater, following the " career " of Shylock as played by the likes of Charles Macklin and Edmund Kean and Henry Irving (who called him " almost the only gentleman in the play " ), making repeated wistful reference to his own eight paltry lines, even putting Shylock on the couch ( " So tell me, Mr. Shylock, why do you want to take a pound of Mr. Antonio’s flesh? Is it personal, or does it . . . represent something? " ). His master stroke, though, builds from Shylock’s most poignant line — not " If you prick us, do we not bleed? " but what he says when he learns Jessica has given his turquoise for a monkey: " I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys. " Shylock treasured the ring his wife gave him; Bassanio and Gratiano can’t even make it to their wedding nights without giving away the rings they had of Portia and Nerissa. So who’s the villain here?

That’s the question Shakespeare asked in his play. The Merchant of Venice is a disquieting essay on love and money, and it’s not so clear who’s on which side — the first thing Bassanio tells us about Portia, after all, is that she’s wealthy. As he did with his other stage " villains " (Richard III, Iago, Edmund in Lear), Shakespeare took Shylock beyond stereotype, but the treatment was subtle, and the stereotype remained. So Armstrong’s show is worth Antonio’s weight in gold — or, what’s better, in wit, intelligence, forgiveness, and good humor. I hope a local theater space (maybe the Market?) will bring it back for a longer run; Shylock is good news for all audiences.

Issue Date: November 15 - 22, 2001

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