The Merchant of Venice

Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival, The Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St., through June 21, 569-9700

Whether you think of Shylock, the vengeful (and, problematically, Jewish) usurer in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, as a grotesque anti-Semitic caricature, as a sympathetic spokesman for religious and ethnic tolerance, as a sociological specimen of a particular set of historical conditions, or as a flawed but tragic wronged individual forced into taking an absurd course of action that ultimately dooms him (murderously demanding, as penalty for a defaulted loan, a pound of flesh from his enemy Antonio, the Venetian merchant of the title), there is one thing that is clear from the language and action of the play: he is an alien, palpably different from the other characters in the play and from their values.

This is particularly clear in Carmen Khan's production for the Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival. It's not just that Shylock speaks with an exotic diction and accent; nor is it just the yellow circle of fabric stitched to his "Jewish gabardine," an inescapable foreshadowing of the yellow stars that Jews were forced to wear during the Third Reich. Shylock is alien here because he is played by David Howey, a veteran of the Royal National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Howey has a command of the language, a rich vocal timbre and range of effects, and a level of comfort in inhabiting his character, that speaks (literally and figuratively) in a different theatrical vocabulary from the actors with whom he shares the stage.

Khan has wisely decided to tell the story of the play - perhaps I should say stories, since the play orchestrates several conceptually interrelated human dramas - by focusing on the characters, their courses of actions and their emotional reactions to their circumstances. In the case of Howey's Shylock, we don't get much explicit information about Shylock and his motivations, but we know that something is going on behind his forehead: his contempt for the Christians who have nothing but contempt for him, his unambivalent desire to avenge his daughter's elopement by demanding the pound of flesh from Antonio, the strange bemused resignation that comes across his face when he sees that the tide has turned against him at the trial, as though he half expected it. I didn't always know what either the actor or the director were going for, but something was clearly going on.

But in the case of some of the other actors - several but not all of whom are quite able - I was even less sure. The director sets up actions, images and tableaux that are designed to set up the story being told; and then, as with Shylock, she trusts that the characters and their emotions will do the telling. But her trust may be misplaced.

For example, Portia (Mollie Hall), the wealthy heiress, and her lady Nerissa (Kim Waldauer) are first seen fencing with foils and masks, laughing giddily; but then Portia talks about her world-weariness, and her resentment of the tyrannical terms of her late father's will. If she's so upset, how can she be having that much fun? Or if she's having that much fun, ought we to believe her when she tells us she's upset?

And take the case of Antonio (Jim Chance). He expresses nothing but contempt for Shylock when he first negotiates with him, mockingly imitating his accent when he contemptuously spits out the word "interest." But over the course of the play Antonio is visually juxtaposed with Shylock. When Shylock returns home from dinner to discover that his daughter has eloped, the merchant stands at one side of the stage and the Jew at the other, both discontentedly letting down their carnival masks. And when Shylock is expelled in disgrace from the trial, Chance's Antonio, who had nearly died at Shylock's hands, looks on with new sympathy and a peculiar sense of kinship.

Does Khan want us to believe that Antonio is rethinking his previous anti-Semitism? Is Chance suggesting that this may have to do with Antonio's friendship with Bassanio (Russ Widdall), for whom he has staked his money and his life so that his younger friend can woo Portia? Is the director drawing an equation between Shylock and Antonio, that they are both forced to wear masks, or that they both choose not to? It's never made clear.

Don't get me wrong: neither the director nor the actors need to explain what all these moments mean; it's enough that the emotions of the characters, as conveyed by the actors, tell the story.

But because Howey's acting speaks so eloquently, the other actors - even the few who are emotionally truthful and verbally adept - seem almost mute. And the production, which can rely upon neither scenic splendors nor strong ensemble acting, finally doesn't seem to have any story to tell at all.

-Cary M. Mazer