Goodman Theatre

Goodman Theatre’s Merchant of Venice looks like America: multiracial, clannishly divided into population groups self-righteously obsessed with their own victimization, and hooked on television. Director Peter Sellars’s C-SPAN Shakespeare may not be what the Bard of Avon had in mind, and measured by the goals identified in Goodman Theatre’s publicity newsletter it’s an intellectual failure. But as a mirror of a late-20th-century culture that espouses the lofty humanism of Shakespearean rhetoric but, like Shakespeare’s own society, seldom practices it, it’s thought-provoking theater as interesting for its mistakes as its successes, created by an artist with the balls and the eye for detail needed to put forth an individual, consistent point of view on controversial material.

Make no mistake. This is not Shakespeare for the masses, no matter how contemporary it is; at the Saturday-night show I attended, about half the audience had deserted the 683-seat auditorium by the time the second act started. (They should have stuck around–the second part is a good deal more exciting and a hell of a lot shorter than the first.) Nor is it Shakespeare as star vehicle, thrilling an audience with an actor’s insight into Shylock’s psychology. Nor is it Shakespeare for beginners; while a close reading of the text supports many of Sellars’s unorthodox, even perverse interpretations, this production is definitely not an “accurate” reading of the author’s intention. It’s a rethinking of the work for viewers who think they already know Shakespeare’s rich but problematic script.

Turning the sprawling Goodman stage into a TV studio, nearly bare except for a few set pieces and a plethora of video monitors (the empty space’s hugeness is emphasized by the long, looming shadows James F. Ingalls’s lighting casts on the vast white backdrop), Sellars resets Shakespeare’s story from Renaissance Italy to present-day California. The Jewish moneylender Shylock, the play’s most challenging and compelling character–a compendium of wounded vulnerability, caustic wit, and vicious anti-Semitic stereotypes about ritual murder and coldhearted usury, who’s been variously depicted as melodramatic monster, eccentric clown, noble hero, and fanatic madman–is played by African American actor Paul Butler as an impassive, conservatively dressed businessman. His punk-chic daughter, Jessica, spends her days indolently watching cartoons on the tube.

Antonio, the merchant who pledges a pound of his own flesh to guarantee a loan from Shylock, is a middle-aged Latino whose lonely melancholy is well conveyed by the mellifluously voiced Geno Silva; his best friend Bassanio, on whose behalf he borrows the money, is a macho young Latino whom John Ortiz plays as Antonio’s passionate but fickle lover. Elaine Tse’s Portia, the fashionable lady Bassanio pursues with Antonio’s cash, is an Asian beauty who slips into a pseudo-Latin strut when she announces her plan to pose as a man and defend Antonio from Shylock’s claim–though her angry ambivalence about helping her boyfriend’s boyfriend gives the climactic courtroom scene an extra level of suspense: will she or won’t she? The action is aimed straight at TV cameras and replayed on the monitors hung throughout the theater. Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech is a sound bite, delivered to an interviewer with calculated logic. In the courtroom scene, the Duke who weighs Shylock and Antonio’s case is a white judge–the perfectly deadpan Del Close–who speaks softly into a microphone; though his back is to us, his face is larger than life on the TV screen, offering just one example of how the medium distorts the news it disseminates.

Never mind Sellars’s chatter about his “obligation to present these plays the way the playwright couldn’t”; even in more liberated times, I don’t think Shakespeare intended his socially separated sets of lovers to be of different minority racial groups. And while critics and directors in the past have convincingly suggested that Antonio is a homosexual in love with his young friend Bassanio (evidence perhaps of Shakespeare’s own bisexuality), no one would have been more appalled than the playwright at the blatancy with which Sellars treats that element. Indeed, the gay angle often seems sensationalized in a way that undermines Sellars’s stated vision of the script as “the most astute and shockingly frank analysis of the economic roots of racism that we have”; it’s like offering Dynasty as a serious critique of capitalism’s impact on the family.

Maybe that’s Sellars’s point. I’m still debating whether the guy knows just how accurately he’s invoked TV-influenced contemporary culture in all its shallowness and arbitrary violence. Many of this Merchant’s line readings are contrived and sophomoric; that might be because Sellars is under television’s spell, or because he’s knowingly exposing the medium’s influence on the play’s characters. I’ll go for the more generous option, using as evidence Sellars’s decision to have his actors speak many of their lines very . . . slowly . . . and . . . deliberately. A director who was just emulating the video aesthetic would have coached his cast in hyperactivity, not the solemn near-somnambulance that has driven many viewers out of the theater after (and even during) the 130-minute first act. The slow delivery forces us to concentrate on the words, and it stresses the poetic stylization of much of the dialogue: this is some of the most exquisitely musical Shakespeare I’ve heard since the heyday of John Gielgud, yet it’s always modern. It also highlights thematic connections between the play’s various narrative strands, including the importance of seemingly minor characters whose scenes are generally rushed through or even cut by directors with a more pragmatic approach to keeping the audience interested.

Take the running theme of parent-child alienation. It’s crucial to the play: Shylock’s daughter runs off with a gentile, taking with her a considerable part of her father’s fortune. Whether Jessica is seen as a righteous rebel against a monstrous father or a nasty abuser of a doting dad, her act is a key factor in Shylock’s pursuit of vengeance against all Christians, which leads to his crushing defeat. What Sellars emphasizes is how this theme is reinforced by the play’s other major plot strand, the courtship of Portia, and also by the comic character of Launcelot Gobbo, whose main function is as a go-between for Jessica and her lover Lorenzo. The short scene in which Launcelot teases his blind father by pretending to be dead is handled with grim, slow-moving seriousness to highlight the idea of filial cruelty. More significantly, the usually even-tempered Portia, offered by her father to whichever man can accurately guess which of three caskets contains her likeness, here seethes with rage at being treated like chattel.

Portia’s test, which famously proves “all that glisters is not gold” when two suitors pass over a simple lead casket in favor of gold and silver ones, historically has illustrated the theme of choosing values of lasting worth–life and love–over material wealth. That theme also shapes the play’s main conflict: Shylock’s insistence on claiming the pound of flesh pledged to him by his debtor Antonio. Here, love and money are linked to death. Portia’s caskets are coffins whose mirrored interiors reflect the faces of her disappointed suitors. (Freud might be an influence here, in his essay linking Merchant to the mythical judgment of Paris as an allegory for mortality.) This reminds us of the fatal implication of Shylock’s claim, especially when a palpably angry Portia veers back and forth between helping Antonio–her boyfriend’s boyfriend–or letting him die at Shylock’s hand.

No question: it’s gimmicky. And though the courtroom scene is undeniably powerful when it deploys footage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots while the black Shylock pleads for justice, the effect is due much more to the film’s innate power (and to the tension-building music by Morton Feldman) than to Shakespeare. Throwing politically charged images on a screen is a reliable way to stir viewers, but it doesn’t add insight to the poetry; in any case, Butler’s Shylock–whose dignity stems mainly from his bulky girth and sonorous bass voice–suggests the conservative Clarence Thomas more than radical lightning rod Rodney King.

But Sellars has done more than subject Shakespeare to a high-tech lynching. Many of his individual choices force us to confront the flawed classic in far more personal and emotional ways than usual. Even the wrong choices–like drawing a simple parallel between blacks and Jews, who have suffered distinctly different kinds of prejudice and persecution–raises issues most theaters would shy away from. Yes, half the audience walked out; but the ones who stayed had a bracing encounter with an eternally troublesome cornerstone of Western culture. This Merchant of Venice is a fascinating piece of merchandise.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.