When I was in college, I learned that The Merchant of Venice was the anti-Semitic play where the avaricious Jew Shylock demands his pound of flesh from the worthy Christian merchant. Fortunately, the new production at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum offered a chillingly contemporary interpretation instead. It’s probably much closer to Shakespeare’s intention.
Before the play even begins, a gaggle of youths are already harassing Shylock. From then on, every time any Christian says the word “Jew,” he spits, emphasizing the basic hatred to which Jewish people are subjected. Shylock, played by the brilliant and nuanced actor Alan Blumenfeld, is so much more than than the usual villain. We see how much he is exactly what the Christians have made of him – a man who is earning his living the only way they permit, who must scramble for everything because he is allowed to have so little, who will of course take advantage of the incredibly few chances he gets to have even a moment of dignity, much less revenge. When the idiotically optimistic merchant Antonio seeks to borrow money against his fortunes at sea, why should Shylock not demand a pound of flesh from near his heart if he is not paid on time? Why should he not “have [his] bond” when Antonio does not pay him?
Even the characters I remembered as having some shred of nobility are hypocrites. Even Portia’s speech beginning “The quality of mercy is not strained” is rendered absurd by the context: she is impersonating a legal expert who doesn’t actually exist – and the whole play, especially as rendered in this production, shows the “Christians” behaving in the most unmerciful possible way. Forcing Shylock to appear to adopt their religion is the final blow – and completely contrary to what Jesus professed.
The play is unsettling not only because the “good” characters show their evil sides so baldly, but also because it portrays the impact of hatred on both the hated and the haters. Anti-Semitism parades across the stage in both its subtler and its more savage forms. Thankfully, the actors held a “talk back” after the play, and dozens of people stayed for the conversation about how troubled we were, and why. Mr. Blumenfeld stressed that the play is not anti-Semitic, but about anti-Semitism. Artistic Director Ellen Geer and the company wanted to perform it at this time because we are again in a time when anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred and hate crimes are on the rise.
The Theatricum Botanicum has a history of taking on unpopular causes. In fact, it was founded by Will Geer (known to people my age as Grandpa Walton) when he was blacklisted in Hollywood in the McCarthy era. Other actors banned from working in the industry gathered, and slowly today’s splendid open theater was built. It’s a magical place in the woods, but only half an hour up a twisting road from Santa Monica. The sets integrate the trees around them, with several balconies that serve many purposes adding dimension to the large stage. Amphitheater seating means that everyone feels close to the actors. Throughout the year, students come to be introduced to Shakespeare and theater arts, and in the summer they can be involved in productions and classes which anyone would enjoy. Adults even have their own chance to learn in more depth.
If I lived in southern California, I’d go right back and see this revealing production again.