‘The Merchant of Venice’
By William Shakespeare
Karin Coonrod/Compagnia de’ Colombari
Sept. 19, 22, 2 27, 28, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 23, 8 p.m.
Sept. 23, 5p.m., invitation only roundtable conversation with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Shakespeare scholars David Scott Kastan, James Shapiro, Naomi Liebler, and Adam Rzepka. it will be livestreamed on Howl Round TV (http://howlround.com/livestreaming-roundtable-discussion-about-the-merchant-of-venice-at-montclair-state-university-sat) and Facebook Live from the Peak Performances Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/peakperfs/) at 5.
Sept. 24, 1:30 p.m., Professor Shaul Bassi will give a talk titled “Shakespeare in the Ghetto, the Ghetto in Shakespeare,” at MSU’s School of Communications and Media.
Sept. 26, 6:30 p.m., Teresa Fiore, Inserra Chair in Italian at MSU, will lead “Venice as a Metaphor for the World,” discussion with Coonrod and Allesandro Cassin, deputy director of Centro Primo Levi in new York.
Sept. 30, following the performance, Coonrod will lead a free Community Conversation.
The Alexander Kasser Theater
Montclair State University
1 Normal ave.
By GWEN OREL
Who is playing Shylock?
It’s the first question asked about any new production of Shakespeare’s 1596 play “The Merchant of Venice.”
Patrick Stewart, F. Murray Abraham, Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino have all played Shakespeare’s famous Jew.
In director Karin Coonrod’s production, which opens at Peak Performances in September, the role is played by five people — not on different nights, as in double casting in opera, but in the same performance.
The production is the first in Peak performance’s 2017-18 season, consisting entirely of works by women.
For Coonrod, casting the role with people of different ethnicities and genders was a way to “open up the character to be Jewish and universal.”
The Shylocks, who each take one of Shylock’s five scenes, are Sorab Wadia, Frank Rodriguez, Michael Rogers, Myra Lucretia Taylor and Steve Skybell.
Coonrod and some the company spoke during a break in rehearsal. The Peak production restages the show that Coonrod and her company, Compagnia De’ Colombari, staged in the Venetian Jewish Ghetto last year, the 500th anniversary of the still-extant ghetto’s founding and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
Coonrod has also staged the production in a summer festival in Italy and in a men’s high-security prison.
In “The Merchant of Venice,” Antonio borrows money from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, for his young friend Bassanio, in order to woo Portia. Shylock asks for a pound of flesh as a bond.
When the merchant’s ships are lost at sea, Shylock seeks his revenge, leading to a tension-ridden courtroom scene.
While portraying Shylock as a tragic figure is a tradition that goes back to Henry Irving and the Victorians, the character was popular with Nazis too, who played up his blood-lust and broadcast the play right after Kristallnacht.
“In the Jewish Ghetto, we all felt the high stakes of the entire thing,” Coonrod said. “We wanted to exorcise Shylock’s ghost.”
Different Shylocks would help the audience feel “the part of the attacker, and the outsider.
“It wanted to be bigger. It felt smaller to have just one man interpret the role. We have one woman in it too, who has a central part in the whole unhinging of the play.”
The woman, Coonrod said, takes a central scene, keening and lamenting.
The Shylocks correspond to archetypes: the first is a businessman; the second, a father; the third, a mother; the fourth, a
widower; and the fifth, in the trial scene, a killer.
“It’s Shylock as the Other,” said Steve Skybell, who plays the killer Shylock. For him, the most challenging moment is
when Shylock wields the knife, poised above Antonio’s breast, to kill him.
Many critics see the play as a contrast between the concepts of Jewish justice and Christian mercy, but “the first time mercy is mentioned is in Shylock’s mouth,” said the director. “It’s the Christian mainstream against the outsider Jew. We’re trying to avoid the comic villain and the tragic hero. We think he’s more than that.” When Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, elopes, his grief over her betrayal is great, she said.
For Sorab Wadia, who plays the businessman Shylock, as well as Antonio’s friend Gratiano, it’s a challenge to make his characters “truly human. Not stereotypical, not two dimensional, just to be a human with all the frailty, all the strength, all the complexity. It’s difficult.”
A DARK HEART
He is human, said Coonrod, but “that doesn’t mean just exonerating him. That becomes sentimental.”
Linda Powell, who plays Portia, was with the production in Venice. Powell said, “In Venice, the news from home, it was the summer of Black Lives Matter. That informed a lot of the discussion we had around the play, especially among Americans, about what societies can do to each other, the Other, how people are Otherized.”
Her character, Portia, is Otherized too: she poses as a lawyer, disguised as a man, at Bassanio’s trial. There, she gives the famous speech that begins, “The quality of mercy is not strain’d.”
But, Powell said, Portia has a desire to wield power. “I don’t think the quality of mercy is what people think it is.” Portia “is as much a manipulator, with as much self-interest as anybody in the play, and actually she’s more efficient at getting what she wants than anyone in the play. She’s as smart as anybody in the play, and as ugly as anybody in the play.”
“Manipulative is the right word,” said dramaturg Davina Moss. “She sees what she wants and shifts everything around to make it happen.”
“Everybody in the play has a dark heart,” Coonrod said.
For Moss, the dark heart is what makes this production not antisemitic. “If you have a play in which Shylock has a dark heart and everybody else is just part of the system, then you have a comic villain.
“No matter how bad Shylock may be, what is done to him is inhumane.” The play puts antisemitism onstage, but is not constructed in an antisemitic way, she said.
In Italy, half of the cast were Italian. That production had a beautiful and elegant energy, said Coonrod, but here in New Jersey, she will be able to “tap the great energy of our Americas. We couldn’t tap that as much in Italy. America is a special thing, in the Walt Whitmanic kind of way. We are people from all places. We can tap that energy and bring that into the thing itself.”
A song by the Klezmatics’ Frank London opens the play. The entire company sings it, in a number Coonrod said is like “Comedy Tonight” [from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”].
“Everyone is singing in the streets,” said Skybell, “killer” Shylock.
London’s music also underscores some scenes.
Wadia sings has an “operatic duet,” using text from Shakespeare, translated into Italian.
Venice is famous for its Carnival, something Coonrod alludes to with costuming as well.
Costume designer Stefano Nicolao, whose atelier is just outside the ghetto, makes costumes for the Carnival, she said. His pieces are “Elizabethan in shape” but use zippers, or are diaphanous overskirts. When not in their named roles, some actors play crowdspeople.
Skybell first appears as a woman, beard and all. Sometimes Powell plays a man.
The sleight of hand, she said, represents “fluidity of identity.”
“Black angels,” technicians dressed in black, hand props to the cast as needed.
Wadia said that Coonrod calls the actors “the gems of the theater,” and the black angels are the “magic of the theater.”
Who is playing Shylock? Five actors, as one character: they all wear the gold sash of a Jew.
Sometimes they appear together.
Coonrod said,“We see in Shylock the rage, the completeness of humanity.”
To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else,
it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that.