Theatricum Botanicum's performance of Shakespear’s The Merchant Of Venice couldn’t be more timely or modern. The play is a comedy tragedy. It’s perhaps one of this master playwrights most controversial works ever written. It raises biting questions even today about racism, religion, mercy and justice.
“The current resurgence of anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant sentiment, nationally and internationally, makes it more critical than ever to explore these issues through art and conversation,” said Rabbi Susan Goldberg of the Wilshire Blvd Temple in Los Angeles.
Alan Blumenfeld, who stars as the Jew who demands “a pound of flesh,” researched for his role with two Rabbis prior to performing, one of whom was Rabbi Goldberg. Blumenfeld plays the character Shylock. His performance drew the audience into the humanity of Jews and Christians alike. Neither religion is perfect in this play, as Shakespeare planned it that way. The play is rife with conflict between the two religions. Christians spit on Jews, and in this play, the actors genuinely spit and slap each other. It was awkward the amount of striking of another human being that went on in Shakespeare's play. There were also many comedic lines delivered, some even very feminist for a woman of that day. It was this genuine historical conflict that produced emotional responses from the audience during and after the play.
The theater took the bold step of making a few very emotive changes to the classic play most have in their repertoire. Malibu Arts Journal conducted a Q&A with Blumenfeld on this subject and the audience’s emotional reaction after the play.
MAJ: Alan, you said in the after performance Q&A with the audience you researched with two Rabbis for this role. What did you learn from those Rabbis about The Merchant Of Venice and Shylock in particular?
ALAN: I learned a lot about the Sephardic tradition, which doesn’t have the distinction between secular and religious. That was very interesting. Also, As Rabbi Susan Goldberg said, at a time of rising anti-semitism there is no better time for this play. Let us confront this head on through art. And hopefully find a transformative healing power in seeing our humanity and our treatment of one another.
Shylock does not seek justice nor mercy and in this regard is not a “good Jew” at the end of the play. Just as the rest of the Venetians are not “Good Christians.” The fullness of humanity with flaws and failings is on display and can be something we can learn from, hopefully.
MAJ: You referenced during the audience Q&A a certain Jew who was on trial either just prior or during the original performance of The Merchant Of Venice. Tell us about this part of history, and how you feel it is relevant to today?
ALAN: Dr. Lopez was tried and convicted of attempting to kill queen Elizabeth. He was a Sephardic Jew. The Jews flourished during the moorish period, as doctors, philosophers, teachers and more. In Spain and the surrounding Empire of Moorish influence, the English did not like the Spaniards, Nor the Jews nor many other people who were not English. This incident coupled with the success of the Marlow’s Jew of Malta perhaps encouraged Shakespear's to write his own Jewish play. Shakespeare's enormous humanity would not allow him to write Shylock as simply a comic villain. Rather, his “hath not a Jew eyes…” speech, and his speech in the trial scene castigating the Venetians for owning slaves shows a self awareness in the Jewish character, as well as highlighting the common humanity. Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, as she is about to run away with her father’s money and jewels says “What heinous sin is in me that I am ashamed to be my father’s child.” If this were a fully anti-Semitic play, wouldn't she say something like, “I have being a Jew, can’t wait to run away and be a Christian”?
MAJ: Theatricum Botanicum added a scene on to Shakespeare's work at the very end. It was very emotional as a Jew to watch. Tell our readers about this scene and why the theatre added it?
ALAN: We added a prologue to set the play in context, where the friends of Antonio chase Shylock and spit at him and castigate him as a dirty Jew. This is intended to set the scene and establish the hatred and bigotry in the communities. At the end of the play, Shakespeare has Shylock simply leaving. Many actors have added something for this character either in exiting or as Olivier did, a howl from beneath the stage during the final belmont scene. We added a Coda, with Shylock sneaking in and wrapping himself in his Tallis in an effort to preserve his Jewish indentity, even in secret. And he sings the Shma. My wife, who is not Jewish and who is a brilliant theater practitioner, suggested the Shma as the ultimate Jewish Prayer. And I am grateful to her, as this is the prayer the Jews recited as they were led into the gas chambers. And in so many other circumstances of repression throughout history, the Jailor comes to interrupt and arrest Shylock, in our Coda, and the implication is he will be led away to his death.
Theatricum Botanicum will give one final performance of The Merchant Of Venice Sunday, October 1 at 3:30 p.m. Adults: $38.50 lower tier, $25 upper tier, Seniors (65+), Students, Military Veterans, Teachers, AEA Members $25/$15, Children (5-15) $10, Children under 4 Free.
Theatricum Botanicum is Will Geer’s Theater. It’s roots go back to the 1950’s when Geer was one of the many actors blacklisted during the McCarthy Era. Geer opened up the theater on a dirt stage next to Topanga Creek for blacklisted actors and folk singers on his property in Topanga. Unable to find work in Hollywood, Geer sold vegetables and flowers while he indulged in his acting at the theater with his fellow blacklisters. He presented Shakespear and played music with people such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and John Randolph. The audience sat on hay bales and the performances were free.
In 1962, Otto Preminger cast Geer in the film Advise And Consent which rekindled his acting career. He went on to play Grandpa in the long running TV series The Waltons (1971-1978). In 1973, Geer then formally organized the non-profit that we know today as Theatricum Botanicum.
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum
1419 Topanga CAnyon Blvd
Topanga, CA 90290