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I heard belatedly about director Jonathan Munby's Merchant of Venice, with Jonathan Pryce starring as Shylock, playing a one week stint at the Lincoln Center Festival. It was originally created for the Globe Theater and is apparently now on tour. I did some looking at reviews and saw only good things, and particular notes about some additions to the text I was curious about, so I decided I wanted to see it. By the time I looked, there weren't many seats left. I was left with the choice of spending nearly a hundred dollars for seats all the way in the back, or one fifty for fourth row orchestra seats, and I decided to splurge since it seemed like a fairly small marginal increase- if I was already in for a hundred dollars, might as well make sure I got choice seats. I'm not sure I've ever spent so much money on a theatrical performance, and I instantly to a certain degree regretted it. It is not the kind of money I normally spend and to do so on a play I have such deep, complicated feelings about was a significant risk for that kind of money. Still, it was a staging I didn't really want to miss.

Munby's major question on Merchant is: How can a play so terribly racist be read as a comedy in today's age? His answer is: It shouldn't be. And yet unlike Darko Tresnjak's magnificent transformation of the play into a tragedy, into Shylock's tragedy, Munby commits fully to the text of Merchant as a comedy. Instead of working against that clear intention, he works it against the audience. The persistent question Munby poses to his audience is: "Why are you laughing? This isn't funny!"

He opens the play with an introductory masque, singing, dancing, music and drums, the revelry of a Venetian street carnival. (There is brilliant music throughout the production, with a wide range of meanings.) The actors don't just dance onstage, they dance into the aisles, egging on the audience, and then they start to clap. They clap in rhythm with the drums, the clapping spreads from actor to actor and then, with encouragement from the actors, it spreads to the audience. It built and built, filling the theater, until two Jews, Shylock and a companion, clad in red caps marking them as Jews, blundered through the carnival by mistake. The music stops. The revelers, led by Antonio, spit on and then savagely beat Shylock and his coreligionist. The very same revelers the audience was just clapping along with!!!! (I was not clapping along. The audience participation bits throughout the show did not work on me. I do not identify with the Venetians. I stand with Shylock.) Watching the Venetians beat Shylock was the first time this play made me tear up, but it was not the last. It was just so visceral, watching a Jew beaten on stage for the amusement of the Christian heroes of the play. This is not ancient history, you know. At intermission the couple behind me was reading from the program a small historical note about Elizabethan anti-semitism and snickering. One of them said to the other "It says the Elizabethans were anti-semitic. No shit!" it was such classic New York liberal superiority. I wanted to turn to them and say "21st Century Americans are anti-semitic, too! No shit!" I restrained myself.

Later, Shylock's servant Gobbo grapples with whether to steal from his master the Jew. A devil sits on one shoulder, an angel on the other. Gobbo pulls two people from the audience and brings them on stage to pantomime as the devil and the angel. He enlists the audience to take their behalfs, playing up the comic bawdiness of Gobbo and his ridiculous call and response games until half the audience is cheering for Gobbo to steal from the Jew without realizing it. (I realized it. The audience participation bits did not work on me. I stand with Shylock.)

Again and again, this was Munby's solution to the problem of the play's comic racism- to trick the audience into laughing at it and then pull the curtain back and reveal what they'd just laughed at. But I was never laughing, so I just had the uncomfortable feeling throughout of watching an audience all around me laugh at anti-semitic jokes. Jokes at my expense. It was... revealing.

Merchant is not only the anti-semitic Shakespeare play, though. It's also otherwise racist! People forget that in Morocco's scene there is Portia's infamous line about his complexion, that Aragon's scene is just a long series of ethnic jokes... Munby didn't seek to undermine these scenes at all. He played them as ethnic comedy, as they are written, and I suppose he trusted that the lesson he was teaching in the scenes about the Jews would echo into these scenes, or perhaps he thought a few jokes about savage Africans and fussy Spaniards were funny, or perhaps he just needed to beef up the comedy for his finale to land as hard as he wanted, but I wanted more from these scenes.

What of Shylock? Pryce's Shylock was good, but not great. He was a nervous creature, much abused and much suffering from the abuse, but I actually believed in the negotiation scene that when he spoke of the pound of flesh as his 'merry bond', he meant it. There was little sinister, manipulative intent, little of the chessmaster. This was a reactive Shylock. Pryce and Munby's interpretation of this scene seemed to be that after repeated insulting of Shylock by Antonio, Antonio has the temerity to actually ask a favor of Shylock, and yet even as he asks the favor, Antonio cannot disguise his hatred of Shylock. Shylock sees this, sees how in the midst of begging a favor Antonio cannot resist throwing Shylock's Chumash to the ground and calling him the devil, and sees an opportunity to turn the tables. Not to kill Antonio, but for once in his life to get to laugh at Antonio, rather than the reverse. Refusing interest, demanding a pound of flesh as bond, it is not bloodthirst but a calculated insult of Antonio's worth as a man and a merchant. Only after Jessica's betrayal is Shylock reduced to nothing but vengeance. His kinsman Tubal feeds him this vengeance as an antidote to his grief over losing his daughter: With every yet more sorrowful detail about her departure, Tubal soothes Shylock's fraying nerves by reminding him of Antonio's poor business fortunes, reminding him that at least he will gain his petty insult on the evil merchant as consolation. Except that as Shylock's worldview warps, he no longer sees it as just being an insult. He wants blood. He wants this horrible Christian society that he is trapped in to inflict punishment on Antonio by its own rules, in lieu of restoring Jessica to him.

Jessica's relationship with her father is strained but heartfelt. It is clear that growing up without her mother in the house of Shylock was not easy for her, that she is not leaving for Lorenzo entirely because she loves Lorenzo, but because she knows it will hurt her father. In their opening scene, they bicker at each other in 20th century Yiddish theater Yiddish. (I'm unclear on the historical accuracy of this. Well, okay, I'm half-unclear. I am sure that two Venetian Jews from the 15th century would not talk in 20th century Yiddish theater Yiddish, but I'm not sure if they would have spoken a German-inflected Jewish dialect, as the staging suggests, or if they would have spoken some form of Judeo-Italian, or if they as Northern Italians would have spoken some combination of the two. I just don't know enough about the historical linguistics.) Shylock is trying to impose rules on her for her own safety, but because of who he is, because of the distance between the two of them, he cannot explain himself to her, only order her around. She resents the unexplained restrictions, resents her Jewishness, her Otherness.

But kinship is not all that binds Jessica to Shylock, and it is not all that she is surrendering in joining Lorenzo. Much is made in the later Belmont scenes of Jessica's struggle to adjust to being a Christian. She doesn't know how to act, she doesn't know how to move, she doesn't know how to talk like a Christian. The second act opens with a dance sequence, in which Lorenzo gives her a crucifix necklace to wear and then tries to teach her Christian dances and she struggles and fumbles and ultimately is supplanted by her mistress Portia, who dances effortlessly with Lorenzo as Jessica looks on in frustration. Every time Portia addresses Lorenzo and Jessica, the actress emphasized a distinct pause between addressing Lorenzo and Jessica, a pause clearly intended to Other Jessica. The difference is not just about faith. In becoming a Christian she is asked to give up her culture, too, and learn a new one. I'm not sure if this was intentional, because it seems too subtle a gesture, but the first time Lorenzo gives her a glass of non-kosher wine, she holds it for a minute and then returns it to a table untouched, as if she is uncomfortable with the idea of for the first time drinking unkosher wine. She can shed her faith, but this cultural tradition of being careful about food dies hard. In her next scene we see her drinking, adjusting.

And at last we reach the finale. the much-talked about Coda which reviewers coyly mentioned as the standout feature of this production. Shylock is humbled and humiliated, his daughter's seducer Lorenzo and the hated Antonio to split his fortune, and he to be forcibly converted. When Jessica hears the news, she is brought to her knees in agony and repentance, singing in Hebrew the words of the daily Vidui confession of the Shemoneh Esrei. Pardon us, our Father, for we have sinned; forgive us, our King, for we have transgressed; for You are a good and forgiving God. Blessed are You, Hashem, gracious One who pardons abundantly. At last she feels the call of her heritage, which she has surrendered with little recompense. And then her Hebrew prayer of penitence is drowned out by Christian chanting, as Munby shows us Shylock's baptism. At last, there is no more laughter, no more comedy. The weddings and the happy endings for the Venetians are drowned out by Shylock's misery. And once more, for perhaps the fourth or fifth time, the production reduced me to tears.

Was it worth the money? I don't know. It was powerfully, effectively staged and moving. I love the context that the ending gave to the story, and am glad I got to see Munby's thoughts on the ending and on the idea of racist comedy generally. But it was painful getting that reminder of how differently I see the world than non-Jews, painful seeing all the places they laughed and I wasn't laughing. In the courtroom scene... How can you possibly laugh during the courtroom scene? They offered Shylock double his original 3,000 ducats and he hesitated for a comic moment, caught between his avarice and his wrath, and the audience laughed. The audience laughed at the idea of a Jew comically trapped between his moneylust and his bloodlust! (I didn't laugh. I stand with Shylock.) 21st Century Americans are anti-semitic, too! No shit!

I stand with Shylock, and that is sometimes a difficult thing to do, because he is a caricatured monster from a long bygone era's deepest fears. I do not stand with him because I long to hold in my hand a pound of Christian flesh, or else three thousand ducats plus interest. I stand with him because Shakespeare sometimes manages to make him look like a member of my family, and I stand with him because my family have all vowed together never to forget what it means to be a Jew.
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On the recommendation of [personal profile] skygiants, I went to see the Arden Theater Company's "Equivocation" with [livejournal.com profile] nathanielperson last week.

"Equivocation" is a sort of alternate history play in which Robert Cecil commissions Shakespeare to create a propaganda play about the Gunpowder Plot. The resulting drama focuses on conversations between Shakespeare and his troupe as they try to figure out the mechanics of staging the play, as well as conversations with alleged conspirators in the plot and conversations with Cecil and King James I to wrestle toward the human motivations behind the story.

Equivocation in the title is, naturally, a somewhat multivalent theme. It's a callback to the bawdy porter scene from Macbeth, as well to a theological treatise the Catholic priest and possible Gunpowder Plot conspirator Henry Garnet wrote on the subject of the doctrine of the same name- which is the question of how a religious believer can use careful language to satisfy persecutors without betraying religious conviction. From these places, it leads to the play's central political question: how can one create art that represents truth, but also satisfies political needs? It additionally leads to the central emotional thread: How can one lead a life where one is honest with those we love, without hurting them and letting them hurt us?

As these stories unfold: the story of Shakespeare and Richard Burbage loving each other more than they love their families, but not trusting that the other cares as much as they do... the story of Shakespeare and his daughter Judith circling each other uneasily, uncertain how to speak about the death of Hamnet and how it has shattered their family... the story of Richard Sharpe and Richard Burbage struggling with each other for respect and artistic primacy in the company... as these stories unfold, Cecil's presence fades into the background. He is a memorable villain, but he does not get much of a meaningful story arc. The other characters lives matter much more to the story than the story's ostensible plot.

The acting was stupendous. The actors all served multiple roles, doublings between members of the King's Men and the various roles they played that spoke both to the actor as mimic of reality and to the thematic resonances between the actors' storylines and the Gunpowder plot trial storylines.

And I loved the use of backstage as a staging ground to litigate the way stories work. The play's best line is Shakespeare's telling Cecil that the story of the gunpowder treason has no plot, to which Cecil replies "It's treason to say there was no plot," before realizing that Shakespeare is talking about narrative plot. The idea behind this joke, that stories are things with rules that are not the same rules as the rules of reality, even stories influence how we view reality, was really powerfully developed.

My only complaint was the show's humor, which largely centered around tame metajokes about Shakespeare's legacy that drew laughter from a small handful of theater geeks in the audience disproportionate to how funny the jokes actually were. The laughter felt to me like the theater geeks were saying, "Look at me, I get this joke that the rest of the audience probably doesn't get, and I find that validating." Except that I got most of the jokes because of my knowledge of Shakespeare despite not being a theater geek, and didn't laugh because I was in this weird null zone of getting in-jokes for a group I'm not part of.
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On [personal profile] roga's recommendation I saw the Improvised Shakespeare Company last night.

On the one hand, their shtick is comparatively simple: They take a single prompt from the audience, a title, and use it as the seed to improvise a one hour pseudo-Shakepearean play.

On the other hand, this is a really impressively complicated brief. They develop characters with unique narrative arcs and mannerisms, make puns and rhymes in mock-Elizabethan English, and tell a complete story made up on the spot.

Last night, I saw the one and only performance of "Romeo and Julie Andrews". I'd say its constituent ingredients were about thirty percent Romeo and Juliet, thirty percent Sound of Music, 20 percent Mary Poppins, 10 percent Macbeth, 10 percent assorted other Shakespeare and Julie Andrews jokes. A roving gang chimney sweeps (and one bellringer) plotted ineffectual revenge on the son of King Andrews of Scotland. King Andrews's daughter Julie, newly returned from the convent and overflowing with hormones (In one of the best lines of the night, she declares that she is thirteen-going-on-fourteen), is to be married to a mysterious foreign prince until she elopes with MacRomeo. MacRomeo and Julie Andrews are wed by a trio of woodland sprites that are a little bit Weird Sisters, a little bit Ariel and Caliban and Puck, and a little bit Von Trapp. The wedding ceremony was a punny invocation of the complete cycle of "Do, a Deer". The whole thing was amazing.
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I saw this exact same Merchant of Venice, with Darko Tresnjak directing and F. Murray Abraham as Shylock, with these costumes and these sets, in a different theater four years ago. And it was a completely different play.

Back then, AIG was an insurance company that aired Super Bowl commercials and Goldman Sachs a phenomenally successful investment bank and the show was being played in a Broadway theater for a crowd of theatergoers.

So much has changed since Spring 2007. I've graduated college, found a job, tried to figure out how to negotiate adulthood. The economy crashed, we got our first Black President, an oil company dumped millions of gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. All of those external changes made this a very different show.

The opening scene, with Antonio and all of his friends dressed as Wall Street investors or bankers or lawyers, was awkward and false, as if these people knew the doom awaiting them and were trying to, well, mask it with booze and easy women and loose talk. Sound familiar? In this staging, Antonio=AIG didn't need to be said. It was understood. Portia = Goldman didn't need to be said. It was there if you were looking for it.

And the thing about this recontextualization is that it accommodates the play's racism and antisemitism and misogyny without any struggle whatsoever. The play takes place in the highest bastions of the patriarchy. Are you surprised to see these bankers and brokers sitting around in their office shooting the bull about women they've slept with, parties they've been to, pranks they've pulled? Of course not. Are you surprised that none of them are black, but most of their servants are? Of course not. (Of particular note is a fascinating casting move, making Nerissa black. When Portia utters her infamous slur about the Prince of Morocco's complexion, a light turns to Nerissa and shows her shock at the betrayal that Portia doesn't even seem to realize she's committed.) Privilege like you wouldn't believe is on display.

Antonio makes no apology at all for hating Jews. With his life on the line, he doesn't try reasoning with Shylock, just makes a resigned speech about the blackness of Shylock's heart. And it's brilliantly done because the director has shown us so well at this point that for all Shylock's evil (And make no mistake, this production does not make him anything less than a monster. Abraham's shouts in the climactic scene "I will have my bond!" are from the deepest part of his heart, one of the sincerest moments his character has.), he is desperate for the approval of these people and the right kind of appeal from Antonio probably could have worked.

One more are you surprised, because it brings out a theme of the play oft-overlooked, or at least, oft focused differently. Are you surprised that when the bankers and brokers are out for a debauched night on the town, Shylock is scared for the safety of his beautiful daughter? This is a play about sexual violence. Critics usually look at Portia, bound by her father to marry whoever wins a stupid game. But amidst his generic fear of violent antisemitic outbreaks, Shylock's fear that his daughter will be raped looms large in this staging. I see clear echoes of the story of Jacob and Dina in the Jessica plot.

Oh, that's another thing I wanted to talk about. I love that Shakespeare makes his Jew better at quoting Scripture than his Christians. Shylock's speech about Jacob and Laban is effective and reasonably accurate. Gobbo's speech about the sins of the father is theologically and scripturally garbled. But I think these two scenes are foregrounded very well here, illustrating the Biblical undertones of the story, implying the history that leads to these ancestral hatreds. The reason this play endures, the reason we still stage it despite the fact that it's so nasty and racist and easy to misstage, is that it really is an incredibly intricate and beautiful play. By keeping the notes on the caskets on screens for all of the Belmont scenes, they called attention to the way those messages "Who chooses me will get what many men desire," etc... are echoed in the Venetian storylines. From a dramatic standpoint, there is nothing whatsoever that Shakespeare got wrong in this play. It's just so deep and full of meaning.

I've said next to nothing about Shylock, probably cause that's a whole post in itself. But F. Murray Abraham is the greatest Shylock I've ever seen, still.
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I bought a ticket for the Merchant of Venice at Pace University's Schimmel Center this Thursday, with F. Murray Abraham as Shylock. Guys, let me tell you, I saw him do the role on Broadway back in '07 and I've never seen a Shylock anywhere near as good as F. Murray Abraham. I'm really, really excited.

I have very exacting demands for Merchant and for Shylock in particular. This is a play that can hurt me very badly if it's not done the way I need it to be done, but it's also a play that I seek out again and again because if it's done right, if it manages to avoid beating me up, it's full of incredibly sublime theatrical moments.

My Merchant is the story of a single father trying to raise his daughter to know good from evil in a world where good and evil have been flipped on their head. Somehow Shylock has been miscast as a demon, somehow Jessica has been turned against him, and Shylock doesn't understand why it's happening. All that's left to him is to try to teach her what Judaism is, why he lives his life according to its inscrutable laws, why something so simple as a business lunch has turned into a mortal insult to Antonio because God decreed it had to be that way.

It's easy to pity Shylock, but that's not what Shakespeare wanted out of him, and I think it's a failure of the actors' and director's imagination if that's all you get out of him. If it's done right, you see the strength in Shylock's moral intransigence. You see his fiery wit and his rapid intelligence. If it's done right, Shylock instead of Antonio becomes the hero of the play, and he becomes a tragic hero as noble as Hamlet or Oedipus: Flawed men of great power and great weakness who bring about their own downfall rather than letting cruel fate bring it down on them.

And oh lord, I can't describe the ache I feel when I hear "My daughter, my ducats."



In two weeks I'll see The Elixir of Love at New York City Opera as I begin a two week period where I'll be spending a lot of time in the Koch Theater. That'll be followed by a John Zorn "Masada Marathon" where he'll be trotting out endless musical configurations to play music from the Masada songbook of experimental neo-klezmer/jazz/lordknows what. And then the Schoenberg/Zorn/Feldman monodrama triple bill. Whee, that'll be fun. I'm making Lee join me for Masada and Noah for the monodramas. I'd hoped Michelle would be available for the Donizetti, but that's seeming unlikely. Still need someone to see that with me.

In any case, I'll be running into my birthday on a theater high, I hope.
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
First, [community profile] forkedtongues is an awesome community dedicated to multilingualism and translation culture. For poetry month they've been trying to post poems in as many languages and scripts as possible and create a dialogue about translating poetry, and the conversation has been amazing and the poems even better. I've personally posted poems in Chinese, Polish, and Yiddish and translations into English, French, and Spanish.

Second, last week Lee and I went to see Futurity, which was advertised as a Civil War Steampunk Rock Musical. And that was enough to sell us on it before we'd heard a note, but as it turns out it was terrific. It's created and performed by the Brooklyn indie band The Lisps, who we'd also never heard of before but who are apparently amazing.

Futurity tells the story of a Union soldier, Julian Munro, performing jobs like destroying Confederate railroad lines to cut off the Rebel supplies. It's a mindnumbing, back-breaking duty made maddeningly worse by the constant fear that the actual fighting war will reach them at any time. So our hero dreams, steampunk dreams. He dreams of the steam brain, a mechanical device of colossal proportions that will replace the fatally human decisionmakers that have doomed the US to this war. The Steam Brain will bring peace, he insists, in poetic and absolutely stirring letters to his muse, the British scientist Lady Ada Lovelace.

The music is a frenetic blend of indie rock and Appalachian folk, propelled from behind by the most gorgeous steampunked drumkit. The lyrics are verbal diarrhea, a self-conscious stream of consciousness blur of ideas and emotions made physical through the language of science. It holds together, just pure drama, the tensions building and building to an achingly intense climax.

As to the title, well, the play operates under a carefully constructed tension between history and anachronism. Sometimes there's extreme care to make the science sound 19th century, even when it would contradict contemporary ideas about science. Other times, they puncture their own sails with 21st century irony that feels just as intentional. Futurity, in a nutshell.

Fourth, the week before that I celebrated my birthday at the Met's staging of the Magic Flute. It's the second time I've seen this production, and I love every bit of it. Last time, I saw Diana Damrau sing Pamina, and this show's Pamina was no Diana Damrau, but there was really nothing to complain about. I had a great evening out with my little sister.

Third, somebody needs to recommend two books to me.

First, there's been a lot of books and stories out about the various people who "saw it coming" with regards to the economic crisis. And mostly from what I've seen they've just focused on how these random people looked at the numbers and said, "This doesn't add up." I'm sure they're all very clever, but the people who didn't see it coming were very clever too. I want a recommendation for a book that discusses the people who saw it coming and tries to theorize about what characteristics they had that made them different. Is the Michael Lewis book that book?

Second, I want a book about Renaissance-era spycraft. If I'm going to be writing more about the Pirate Rabbi, I need more information about that. Anybody have any experience on that topic?

Fifth, I love numbering things out of order.

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