Chicago Reviews

Invictus’ brilliant “Merchant of Venice” adds a (too?) painful layer to the show’s antisemitism

Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Brian McConkey.

How do you write a review of a production that does everything beautifully from direction to costuming to design to the outstanding acting, but which was hindered before even it started rehearsing by a choice that probably seemed fascinating but ended up being even more problematic than the play itself? Invictus Theater’s The Merchant of Venice, one of Shakespeare’s most awkward plays to produce, turns out to have made that awkwardness much, much worse when director Charles Askenaizer made the decision to set it in 1938 Italy, as the WWII persecution of the Jews was seriously amping up. Instead of simply providing a modern context for the play’s historical antisemitism, that setting overlays everything that happens with an emotional darkness that, as a member of the audience, I simply could not get past. 

The Merchant of Venice, as dramaturg Michael Shapiro points out in the program, has been the object of debate for centuries about whether Shakespeare was embracing the views of his contemporaries about Jews or actually intending to shine a powerful light on the ugliness of antisemitism. Either way, though, the central character of Shylock is rightly seen as emblematic of the worst stereotypes of Jewish people. When you couple that with the vitriol of the open and official hatred of all Jews in the late 1930s, you invite the haunting specter of the Holocaust onto your stage, and there is nothing you can possibly do to lessen its negative effect.

Not that Askenaizer and Invictus don’t try their hardest. The play is brilliant and powerful in its staging, taking control of the small Buena Theatre space as I’ve rarely seen done before. Its pacing and textual interpretation are so on the nose that they can be favorably compared to the best Shakespeare productions I’ve ever seen. The actors and director have taken extreme care to wring every possible bit of nuance out of each separate image, phrase and line, and the result is an ensemble of characters that are as passionately performed as they are gloriously three-dimensional. This is pretty much a perfect production that gets exactly what it intended from the play, and the sum of its parts tells me that it should easily receive a rave review.

Yet I’m torn. When a production can claim that even its minor characters are fully realized, that is a fine thing. But watching Salanio (Erik Schiller) and Salarino (Mitchell Spencer), dressed in their uniforms reminiscent of Mussolini’s fascist Italian military, berate, abuse, and even spit upon Jewish characters—no matter that their performances are dynamite—is more than uncomfortable. It’s painful. The knowledge of how all of this ends pervades every moment of their derision. And this is a play that is technically categorized as a comedy; how can we comfortably enjoy and laugh at the humorous parts—of which there are many—while our minds are clouded over with mental images of Nazis?

This is a production full of wonderfully crafted comic moments, none funnier than those created by Jack Morsovillo, who plays multiple characters along with his guitar accompaniment throughout the show. His Prince of Arragon, one of Portia’s suitors, is a brilliant piece of work. (So is Brandon Boler’s suitor, the Prince of Morocco, in a more dramatic turn.) Portia herself (Julia Badger) and her maid Nerissa (Madeline Pell) also display their comic bonafides both in the early scene in which they discuss some of Portia’s suitors and in the final scene that completes the subplot about the rings that their lovers Bassanio (Martin Diaz-Valdes) and Gratiano (Glenn Thompson) have agreed to wear forever. 

It is also a production rife with powerful and dramatic moments like the courtroom confrontation between the angry and vengeful Shylock (Joseph Beal) and Antonio (Chuck Munro), the usually benevolent Venetian merchant who has consistently mistreated the Jew over many years, and from whom the moneylender is demanding a “pound of flesh” as his forfeited bond. And Badger’s performance as the ‘man” who will judge the proceedings is amazing (though I have never quite been sure how Portia accomplishes this impersonation, given her self-description as “an unlesson’d girl, unschool’d, unpractised,” or how she is so certain that it will work that she’s willing to risk Antonio’s life). 

Beal is indeed marvelous as the old Jew, and his delivery of the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech is powerful and poignant. His anguish at losing his money and his daughter (Courtney Feiler, who elopes with Travis Shanahan’s Lorenzo) is real, though the soldiers describing it laugh in contempt that they can’t tell whether he cares more for the girl or the cash. When Shylock realizes he has lost in court (and, in one of the Bard’s most egregious touches of anti-semitism, is made to become Christian as a means of mending his ways), Beal falls to the floor, his character a broken man whose entire life has been rendered meaningless. 

Grafting romantic comedy onto a tale about persecution and hatred is either one of Shakespeare’s most bewilderingly audacious notions or the act of a literary genius who wanted to demand more from his audience than he’d get from just another cross-dressing comedy. But it’s always been hard to deal with shows like this and Taming of the Shrew, which similarly explores the issue of sexism. (Othello, which explores racism, fares better because it is a tragedy and thus is meant to be taken seriously.) The Merchant of Venice, a play whose very title points away from its main character as an appeasement to his Christian audience, is layered with such serious content that, even when a production gets its romance and comedy right, as this one clearly does, a dark shadow threatens to swallow it. And in this production, Shakespeare’s unusually long denouement, which returns us solidly to the romantic comedy element in a clear attempt to leave the audience happy, is cast aside by a fantasized coda showing the more probable fate of such a detestable Jewish man in 1938 Italy, making explicit what we have held in our heads for the whole show: Shylock being dragged away by the police, probably to be put on a train for Germany. 

So how to react to such a production in a way that would do justice to its myriad strengths and all of the superb elements that have created it? On the one hand, I can readily exclaim that this is one of the finest productions of The Merchant of Venice that I can even imagine. Every aspect has been meticulously thought through and presented in order to highlight the beauty of Shakespeare’s language and the complications of this particular story. If I had a whole Christmas tree full of green lights, I could justifiably award them to Invictus. But how do I ignore the wrenching emotional dissonance that the added layer of the setting imposes on this show? Six million souls cry out in agony every time Shylock is onstage. And the laws at the time would not have cared that his daughter Jessica had chosen to convert to Christianity upon marrying Lorenzo: she’d have been hauled off to the camps as readily as her father. 

Thus I am, as I said, completely torn, so I am using my multiple-purpose yellow light to leave the decision in your hands. This is one of the best productions of this play you could wish to see. It’s also often immeasurably painful to watch. So, is Askenaizer a genius who has found a real-world way of increasing empathy for the admittedly problematic Jewish man at this play’s core? Or has his gambit utterly overstepped, creating an impossible emotional incongruity that ultimately hurts his production? You can gauge from my words how it affected me; see it for yourself and decide. This is one of the most confident and clever productions of the year, but it may turn out to be among the most controversial as well. I rather hope that it does: in today’s polarized political environment, any show that draws this kind of attention to the resurgent evil of antisemitism or racism is one worth seeing and talking about. 

Merchant of Venice is an Invictus Theater production now playing at the Buena Theatre in the Pride Arts Center, 4147 N. Broadway, Chicago, through Nov 17. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.

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