The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.0999 Sunday, 13 June 1999.
From: Jimmy Jung <
Date: Friday, 11 Jun 1999 09:55:32 -0400
Subject: Mostly Merchant in DC, some Merry Wives and some Jett Li
Hal Holbrook is playing Shylock in the DC production of Merchant at the
Shakespeare Theater, and the humanity he brings to the role is worth the
ticket. The clear instigation that brings this old Jewish money lender
to demand the fatal forfeiture of his bond is laid out before the
audience, leaving us unsure if Portia's eventual triumph is in fact the
happy ending it seems, or the last of the cruel Christian persecutions.
This results from an extensively through and balanced production of the
play; and by "through" I mean that the company fully explores the text;
not overemphasizing and not neglecting any of it's themes and
The clearest example of this exploration, is in Antonio's affection for
Bassanio. Bassanio is played by Hank Stratton, with a frat-boy
freshness, but Keith Baxter gives Antonio's affection for him a severity
that lives up to their description as "bosom lover's." As Portia is
told , "how dear a lover of Antonio," her new husband is, her head snaps
to one side in confusion. In fact, Portia's confusion and possible
irritation with the described warmth of Antonio and Bassanio's affection
seemed so obvious to me that I was willing to believe that she disguises
herself as a boy, in part, to connect with his homoerotic affection.
During a post-show discussion, the cast alluded regularly to the "source
of Antonio's depression;" (but Enid Graham, who plays Portia denied my
interpretation of Portia's disguise.) When I say the production is
"balanced," I mean to say that these elements are touched on with such a
subtlety that the homoerotic qualities that seemed more than clear to me
eluded other members of the audience (at least two folks who saw the
same show where bewildered by discussions of topic and said they noticed
nothing of the sort).
It is in just this manner that the production also explores the question
of race. Launcelot Gobbo, several of the maids and attendants and of
course the Prince of Morocco are played by black actors, who, all to
often must stand quietly by as "Christians," like Portia, dismiss all
people of the devil's complexion. The Shakespeare Theater's ensemble
should be commended for portraying their pain so effectively without the
benefit of lines. When Shylock points to two black attendants and
compares his ownership of Antonio's flesh to slavery, we can't help but
see the justice of his argument.
"You have among you many a purchased slave,
Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules,
You use in abject and in slavish parts,
Because you bought them."
This production also casts Jessica and Lorenzo relationship as unusually
troubled. This list has often discussed the potentially mercantile
nature of Bassanio's suit, but in this production Bassanio tends more
towards the romantic, Lorenzo towards the greedy. Their elopement
starts with love but as Jessica hands down the casket of ducats, Lorenzo
rapidly begins to focus on his new financial leverage. The troubled
nature of their relationship is not unsupported in the text, as much of
Lorenzo and Jessica's conversation in Belmont seems open to an
argumentative reading. In the final scene as Lorenzo receives Shylock's
deed, his mind is entirely on the money and he abandons his new wife on
the stage. As the curtain falls, Antonio and Jessica are left alone on
the stage, wondering what they have received, having chosen to hazard
all they have.
I don't think these types of choices could be carried off without an
excellent cast. In particular; Baxter, Stratton, Graham and Andrew
Long, as Antonio, Bassanio, Portia and Gratiano do an amazing job of
playing Christians we care about (but maybe wonder if we should).
While, of course, Hal Holbrook, is a stunning villain, that maybe we
shouldn't hate as much as we think we do. The ensemble is also used to
portray a complete Jewish community, making this more of a conflict
between races that just Shylock by himself. In the trail scene, this
results in a disturbingly loud, rumble-style confrontation between these
communities. Both a Yiddish prayer (and I think a Catholic prayer) have
been inserted, and I'm told if you know Yiddish, it is quite a moving
addition. The Prince of Morocco and the Prince of Arragon are both
played for huge laughs. (I suspect that in the near future, the Prince
of Arragon will be compared to Austin Power's nemesis, Doctor Evil and
his new side kick Mini-me). And for those of you in the "chooseth"
discussion, Portia rigs the casket game with the song.
Two questions. One, is it unusual to stage Jessica and Lorenzo as
troubled? And two, what are we to make of the reference to Portia's
unseen suitor "Falconbridge, the young baron of England?" We just saw
King John, here in DC and I was wondering about the relationship between
the bastard Falconbridge, and this peculiar reference.
The production has funny moments and romantic moments, but I would be
hard pressed to describe it as comic, or romantic. Instead, it was a
through, thought-out exploration of this complex play and well worth
In the same week, The Shakespeare Theater also opened their "Free for
all" production at Carter Barron. It is a restaging of their 1950's
Jackie Gleason style production of Merry Wives, from last year. Set in
a mountain resort (think "Dirty Dancing"), Falstaff is a lounge singer
and Mistress Anne Page does a few grinds that would make Patrick Swayze
sweat. As is their habit, I believe they have broadened some of the
humor to meet the requirements of this large outdoor venue. It's very
funny (and of course the price can't be beat.)
Lastly, for those of you interested in "Romeo must Die," Jet Li's
version of Romeo and Juliet, one of the unofficial Jett Li fan sites
offers some clips:
I heard a rumor that Jet Li might play a young Boba Fett in a future
Star Wars prequel. Perhaps it is this unusual series of connections
that has me fantasizing about how Henry V would look if it was staged
with light sabers and storm troopers. After all, George Lucas has
always had an amazing vision, what he's really needed is a some good
dialog. Imagine Falstaff as played by Jaba the Hutt.