a dignified man with a beard looks defiant
Alan Blumenfeld as Shylock in a new L.A. production of “The Merchant of Venice” (Photo/Ian Flanders)

‘Merchant of Venice’: a play for our time?

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What is “The Merchant of Venice” selling? Is it anti-Semitism or a dramatic commentary on the anti-Semitism of William Shakespeare’s time?

With a view favoring the latter, a Los Angeles production of the controversial play is being staged as a commentary on the anti-Semitism of our own time. “Merchant” began a four-month run in June at Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon.

The 16th-century play has a long history of prompting unease, ire, protest and censure from Jews for its portrayal of Shylock, a vengeful Jewish moneylender who demands a pound of flesh for repayment of a debt. In light of a recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States and in countries around the world, the producers of this updated version believe it is time to look at the play with fresh and wary eyes again, after they produced it 15 years ago.

“There’s so much anti-Semitism in the world, and this play is perfect for now because it mirrors our own society a bit,” said Ellen Geer, artistic director of Theatricum Botanicum and the director of both productions of the play.

The play addresses a “lack of caring about humanity — it puts it right smack in front of your face,” said Geer, the daughter of the late Will Geer, an actor and social activist who was the theater’s founder. “It’s a beautiful piece of art about human beings when there is no love and caring about each other” — a condition she sees mirrored in the political reality and economic disparity of our times.

Alan Blumenfeld, who plays the leading role of Shylock, agrees about the timeliness of the production. “In a time when we have rising anti-Semitism and bigotry and hatred and violence in the world and in our country, there is no better time to do this play,” he said.

a black and white caricature of an older, rotund Jew
Shylock, as depicted by 19th Century German artist Wilhelm Hensel (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

Blumenfeld hopes the audience will see in the play, which has characters spitting at Shylock, “an all-too-real reflection of what’s going on [today],” similar to people pulling headscarves off Muslims, turbans off Sikhs or yarmulkes off Jews.

After the July 15 performance, audience members will have an opportunity to air their thoughts on the play in a “prologue discussion.”

“We want now to have the audience deal with it and face it,” Blumenfeld said. “I welcome the conversation.”

The play and Shylock — who often is invoked as a Jewish stereotype of greed and callousness — have generated discussion among Jews for centuries. In the 1920s and ’30s, during a period of rising anti-Semitism throughout the world, the B’nai B’rith Messenger, Los Angeles’ Jewish newspaper of the time, published several articles on whether the play should be banned from public schools, along with a commentary that argued it should not be censored at all.

“Fifteen years ago, there was a real fear from the Jewish community about doing this play because in their mind it was something detrimental, and it’s not,” said Geer, who believes the community’s attitude has changed.

That discussion continues, with the Anti-Defamation League offering a guide for high school teachers that explores “the problematic issue of anti-Semitism as a part of the broader discussion of the play.” Theatricum Botanicum also runs its own program called “School Days” to educate a younger audience from the Los Angeles Unified School District about its productions, including “The Merchant of Venice.”

The depiction of the play’s lead character has taken on its own cultural reality, with even Merriam-Webster defining a shylock as a “loan shark.”

But Blumenfield doesn’t think the play is anti-Semitic. As if to give a preview of the prologue discussion to come, he pointed out that even though Shylock does ask Antonio, the merchant of the play’s title, for a pound of flesh in their contract, it is done, as the text says, in “merry sport. It’s a joke, an aftselakhis,” Blumenfeld said, using the Yiddish word that roughly means “to spite you.”

Blumenfeld, who has been a guest star on more than 300 television episodes and performed in more than 40 films, is perhaps best known to TV viewers as the telepathic father in the NBC series “Heroes.” He also has directed a series of plays that dealt with the secular history of the Jewish experience in the United States, written by his wife, Katherine James.

As a Jewish actor in the role of Shylock, Blumenfeld, who was raised a Conservative Jew and is a member of the humanistic-oriented Sholem Community, said the challenge is “to find a complete human within what could be a stereotype.” He noted that, in the past, actors playing Shylock often would “put on a red wig and big, hooked nose, and you would play the evil Jew, even with the language that defies it.”

In pursuit of a more nuanced portrayal as well as an imprimatur, two rabbis were consulted before going into production —Susan Goldberg of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and David Bouskila, director of the Sephardic Educational Center. Considering that the play is set in the 1500s — Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492 — “both rabbis agreed that Venetian Jews would be Sephardic,” Blumenfeld said.

As a result, a Sephardic lullaby was added to a scene in which Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, sings to him — an addition the actor hopes will help his character seem more human.

“We need some insight into Shylock as a loving person,” Blumenfeld said.

He also expects that some of the recent acts of anti-Semitism that have gotten attention — such as the overturning of headstones in a St. Louis Jewish cemetery and the carving of swastikas into cars in Denver — will help a younger audience see Shylock from a more recognizable perspective.

“Our parents saw Jews humiliated in public in Nazi Germany,” but a younger generation “has not seen that until now,” he said.

By the play’s end, Shylock suffers humiliation, is broken financially and is forced to convert to Christianity. Blumenfeld hopes the audience, due to their own recent rude awakening, will now have some rachmones, or compassion, for him.

Edmon Rodman
Edmon J. Rodman

Edmon J. Rodman writes about Jewish life from his home in Los Angeles and is the author of the weekly Guide for the Jewplexed on virtualjerusalem.com. Contact him at [email protected].