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Shylock

By New York City
Gareth Armstrong in Shylock
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Gareth Armstrong in Shylock
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
My girlfriend and I have a running debate about The Merchant of Venice. I think it's anti-Semitic; she doesn't. I see Shylock as a Shakespearean villain; she views him as a tragic hero. I was thrilled by a New York Observer article that ranted about misguided attempts to sanitize the play; she hated the article so much that she hasn't picked up the paper since. As you might imagine, we prepared ourselves for an argument when we went to see Gareth Armstrong's Off-Broadway show Shylock -- but, surprisingly, we left the theater in agreement. The British writer-performer handles the controversial character and subject masterfully.

Armstrong's ambivalence on the issue of anti-Semitism in The Merchant is summed up when he begs the audience, "Don't blame Shakespeare. It's an English tradition... like disemboweling Celtics." That ethnic and religious hatred motivated the famous comedy -- yes, comedy! -- can't be denied, nor can one refute the fact that the play itself has inspired loathing for generations. Yet Armstrong's fascination with the material shines through even as he confronts the play's history.

Did you know that the stage conventions of Shakespeare's time called for Jewish characters to wear curly, ginger colored wigs? Chances are that, even if you did, you're not aware of the specific Biblical passage that motivated it. Armstrong tells all, from the fairy tale that inspired the play to the origin and actual pronunciation of Shylock's name. In another scene, he recreates performances of the role by the famous English actors Charles Macklin, Edmund Kean, and Henry Irving with expert demonstrations of vastly different styles of acting. He also provides a short view of European anti-Semitism, reveals the number of times that the play was specifically commissioned by Nazi Germany to provoke anti-Jewish sentiment, and imparts in detail Hitler's reaction to the play.

But Shylock is more than a work of impressive scholarship; through the use of a nifty framing device, Armstrong turns it into a personal journey. He narrates the piece in the guise of Tubal, whom Shylock briefly describes as "a wealthy Hebrew of my tribe." Although this character has only eight lines in The Merchant of Venice, he plays a crucial role: At the beginning of Act III, he informs Shylock that Antonio's ship has sunk; this news causes Antonio to forfeit his bond and prompts Shylock to sue for his infamous "pound of flesh."

Per Armstrong, Tubal might have had more stage time than the script indicates, because the surviving stage directions are apocryphal. In fact, the writer-performer suggests that Tubal might have accompanied Shylock whenever that character was onstage. This concept allows Armstrong to engender sympathy for Shylock through the point of view of his confidant. Here, Tubal says that he assumed his friend was joking about the "pound of flesh" business and only took the claim seriously when the Venetians and his daughter betrayed him.

Gareth Armstrong in Shylock
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Gareth Armstrong in Shylock
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
But this interpretation is wildly speculative. There's little evidence in the text to suggest that Shylock was ever joking about the bond. From start to finish, he's driven by revenge while the Christian characters are said to be guided by mercy, however far they may fall from that quality. When Shylock is compassionate in The Merchant of Venice, it's viewed as an aberration. ("The Hebrew will turn Christian: he grows kind." -- I.iii) When Portia sentences Shylock harshly, she's supposed to be leading him toward salvation. (Gratiano: "In christening shalt thou have two god-fathers: / Had I been judge, thou shouldst have had ten more / To bring thee to the gallows, not the font." -- IV.i) So Tubal may not be the key that unlocks Shylock's humanity in Shakespeare's play; still, he's a charming character in Armstrong's hands.

A versatile design team juggles the play's various styles. Russell Parkman's scenic design is magnificent: A single red velvet curtain lends an air of theatricality to the show while the details of Shylock's desk, bookshelf, and luggage provide a sense of realism. In the background, an enlarged sepia photograph of the Rialto bridge places us in a romanticized city. Jeff Nellis' clever lighting design ranges from low-key during the naturalistic scenes to vibrant during the more stylized segments, and Simon Slater's soulful music consists mostly of Hebrew prayers sung in an Italian style. Director Frank Barrie handles the constant shifts in tone smoothly.

According to the press materials, Armstong invested five years of work into this project. It's a rare theater artist who devotes so much time, emotion, and energy to one show, and this production is also significant in that it marks the reopening of the Perry Street Theater after 10 years of darkness. Shylock gives New York theatergoers all the more reason to celebrate the venue's return.


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