By Ed Rampell
Shakespeare in the Park’s Julius Caesar has sparked controversy with the Public Theater’s outdoor production in Manhattan’s Central Park of Julius Caesar featuring a Trump look alike as the assassinated emperor. Another Shakespeare classic being produced in an amphitheater in a park at Topanga Canyon is also generating topical heat.
Theatricum’s “Cutting Edgy” Shakespearean Play
For decades Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum’s annual repertory program has presented Shakespearean classics plus topically-themed plays. At times the latter have triggered hullabaloos, such as the 2011 production of My Name is Rachel Corrie, about a real-life 23-year-old American member of the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement who was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza in 2003.
According to Artistic Director Ellen Geer, the too-hot-to-handle one-woman show received some negative responses. “I got a threatening letter from some lawyer and a couple of emails, but I always emailed them back and tried to create a dialogue, which is the whole reason for doing it. If you create a dialogue, hate can’t stay.”
The Geers are no strangers to controversy. WGTB founder Will Geer may be best remembered for portraying Grandpa Walton in the beloved 1970s TV series The Waltons, but in the 1930s he was kidnapped and beaten by the Friends of New Germany when he directed the Hollywood Group Theatre’s production of Clifford Odets’ anti-Nazi piece, Till the Day I Die. In 1937 Geer had a lead role in the Federal Theatre Project’s The Cradle Will Rock, written by Marc Blitzstein and directed by Orson Welles. But at the last minute, the New Deal theatre bureau refused to allow the militantly pro-labor musical to open, so on opening night the cast moved to another Broadway venue. In 1951 Geer testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, called the witch-hunters a “turkey”, and was blacklisted from Hollywood movies. That’s when Geer created the outdoor theater on his Topanga Canyon property. Geer went on to co-star in the 1954 radical classic Salt of the Earth made by blacklisted talents.
For two years in a row now Will’s daughter, Ellen, has daringly adapted and directed Shakespeare’s classics, injecting heavy doses of social relevance that may leave some theatergoers feeling gobsmacked. Last summer, the 299-seat amphitheater audaciously reset Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in East Jerusalem, with the “star-crossed lovers” recast as an Israeli/Jewish Juliet (Judy Durkin) and Palestinian/Muslim Romeo (Shaun Taylor-Corbett). Oy vey!
Last year, Geer explained, “I adapted Romeo and Juliet to this period… The only thing I changed was to bring it up to date and to this culture. I kept the meter, I did tons and tons of research to find out how do the Palestinians… and Jewish people say ‘god’? …I did it all through research so there’s nothing in there that, to me, isn’t true.”
Merchant “Meets” Mogul
Now, in its 2017 season, WGTB is presenting The Merchant of Venice, which the Bard of Avon penned in the 1590s. The current production remains faithful to the time and place of the playwright’s original – Venice (Italy, not California) during the Renaissance (roughly the 14th – 15th centuries). Owing to extensive seafaring trade with the Byzantine and Islamic worlds, the watery realm was Europe’s most prosperous city-state. Nevertheless, this rendition of Shakespeare’s 400-plus-year-old saga about the Jewish moneylender in the Adriatic republic is startlingly relevant for America today.
The decision was made by Geer to stage Merchant last year during the presidential race, “due to the climate of the times… So much is going on in the world today, with the immigrants, which Shylock was. Wealthy people are not really caring about the other classes, which is what’s happening. The religious fervor, denying one as better than the other, or one shouldn’t exist. These are horrific things,” lamented Geer.
Veteran thesp Alan Blumenfeld, who plays Shylock, added: “At a time of rising anti-Semitism, when hate crimes and crimes of prejudice seem to be on the rise, there seems to be no greater moment than now to do a play like Merchant of Venice to highlight anti-Semitism, bigotry, hatred, and intolerance, and to try and transform those feelings through art.”
Blumenfeld went on to say, “We have elected a leader who has normalized this kind of behavior… this gleeful mocking of minorities, people with disabilities, encouragement of white nationalism and white pride. It seems more important than ever to show what the effects of this are and to reflect back to society, through theater. Is this how we want to treat one another? I hope not.”
Geer feels the Manhattan real estate mogul-turned-president has exacerbated these tensions. “That’s why it’s so very, very important for everybody to talk, and not just listen to pundits… on TV.” Although Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is Jewish and daughter Ivanka converted when they wed, as candidate and chief executive Trump pronounced and pursued policies widely perceived as discriminatory against Muslims, Mexicans, and others.
On May 2, 2017 Prof. Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee (Ranking Member California’s Senator Dianne Feinstein), explaining: “A hate crime is a criminal offense motivated… by the actual or perceived group status of another, such as race and ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender and gender identity.”
Based on official police data compiled during the hate-filled presidential race, Levin testified, “In 2016 hate crime in Chicago rose 20%, 24% in New York City, 15% in Los Angeles, and 50% in Philadelphia. The largest increase, 62%, was right here, in Washington D.C.… Seattle with… [a] 6% increase, and Columbus, Ohio, with a 9.8% rise…” Levin teaches in the Department of Criminal Justice at CSU, San Bernardino (the Inland Empire city where a terrorist slaughter occurred Dec. 2, 2015, and a June 10 anti-Sharia Law march “sparked violence” between protesters and counter-protesters, according to the SB Sun).
Amid the context of increasing hate crimes — including desecration of Jewish cemeteries, bomb threats against Jewish centers and schools, racist graffiti scrawled across NBA star LeBron James’ Brentwood home, etc. — post-performance talkbacks take place after each Merchant. They are led by Blumenfeld, who noted, “opening night… 100 people stayed for the talkback, which to me was an indication of the appetite for conversation people have right now to talk about this subject.”
As Shakespeare wrote it, Merchant’s title character appears in only five scenes. “Of all the great roles of Shakespeare and the volume of dialogue, Shylock has very little – yet the impact is so profound,” pointed out Blumenfeld, who played the part in a post-9/11 WGTB production, saw Laurence Olivier portray Shylock in the 1970s, and this time around prepared for the role by meeting with a Sephardic rabbi and Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Ashkenazi Rabbi Susan Goldberg.
Shakespeare’s moneylender is a complex character not always easy to sympathize with. On the one hand, he’s a capitalist – and a usurer, to boot. “These are the richest people in [Venetian] society – and look how they treat each other,” mused Blumenfeld, adding, “Usury was a sin in the Catholic Church, and conveniently, Jews weren’t allowed to practice any profession other than being shopkeepers or money lending… Then, [Christians] had to go to the Jews to borrow money – which gave them another reason to hate Jews.”
The actor went on to say, “Shylock is so hard-hearted in exacting this outrageous penalty for the bond” — the “pound of flesh” Antonio owes him. The actor puts Shylock’s court case against Antonio into a modern context, likening it to how, following the failures of L.A.’s legal system in the Latasha Harkins and Rodney King cases, some aggrieved African Americans felt vengeance when O.J. Simpson was acquitted. “Shylock thinks after all the years of being spit on and abused, here’s an opportunity to exact a horrific revenge. He says, ‘The lessons you teach me I will execute, And it shall go hard and I’ll better the instruction,’” Blumenfeld told @ THIS STAGE magazine.
On the other hand, Shylock is a member of an oppressed minority group as a Jew and presumably an immigrant (he’s referred to as an “alien” in the text) vis-a-vis predominantly Christian Venice.
“He doesn’t rise above his need for vengeance,” stated Blumenfeld. “But only because he’s pushed beyond his limits, having been attacked and treated so horribly all his life… The people in the play treat Shylock so horribly, they almost spit the word ‘Jew’ constantly and throw stones at and mock him at every turn… Then his daughter leaves and steals the ring he gave his dead wife and takes everything away. He loses it, he goes beyond good behavior and demands this outrageous pound of flesh,” when Antonio (Franc Ross) is unable to repay the sum Shylock loaned him. Blumenfeld added that Shylock says to Antonio (who undercut the moneylender’s business by lending ducats without charging interest), “‘You spit on me, cursed me and kicked me.’”
Blumenfeld continued, saying, “In the face of the overwhelming majority culture, Shylock is standing up for himself as a Jew with as much pride and sense of himself as he can,” using Antonio’s lethal pact with him as a way to assert Jews’ rights against the Venetian Christians, who vastly outnumber the city-state’s diminutive, disenfranchised Jewish population who are confined to a ghetto. Shakespearean chicanery rigs a kangaroo court against the Jew, and with Portia’s (Willow Geer) deceit, the trial Shylock has brought against Antonio proves to be his undoing. In effect, the money lender goes from being the plaintiff to the defendant, facing capital punishment through the diabolical, Machiavellian machinations of the gentile powers-that-be. Oy vey!
“Now is a great moment to look at what pushes people to these outrageous acts… how we as a society treat each other and can rise above that,” Blumenfeld said. “Ellen didn’t so much adapt the play as add a prologue and epilogue in order to frame the play in a way that would give a point of view” accentuating the theme of intolerance towards minorities.
Was Shakespeare an Anti-Semite?
Both Geer and Blumenfeld agree that Shakespeare wasn’t an anti-Semite but that instead, his play deals with anti-Semitism.
“I don’t think the play is anti-Semitic,” insists Blumenfeld. When she’s going to elope with the gentile Lorenzo (Dane Oliver) and convert, “Shylock’s daughter Jessica [Maia Luer] says, ‘What heinous sin is in me that I am ashamed to be my father’s daughter?’ …If the play was purely anti-Semitic she’d say something like, ‘I’m so glad I don’t have to be a Jew, I can’t wait to run away from [Shylock]. Shakespeare was such a great humanist he wrote a play that gave the Jewish characters so much humanity and person-ness, as opposed to a play like The Jew of Malta,” Christopher Marlowe’s drama about religious intrigue written shortly before, and believed to be an influence upon, Merchant.
Blumenfeld went on to say, “During the trial scene Shylock says, ‘Look at you people who judge me — you have slaves. Should I tell you to let your daughters marry them… and set them free?…’ To put that language in the mouth of a Jew shows an awareness and self-reflection that goes beyond what an anti-Semitic character would do.” Of course, Shylock’s immortal “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, which fully invests him with humanity, are among the Bard’s most peerless, immortal lines.
It can be argued that Merchant isn’t anti-Semitic in the same way that Othello, about interracial love between a Moor and a European, isn’t racist, but rather opposes racism against Africans. Be that as it may, Blumenfeld conceded that others do perceive Merchant as being anti-Jewish. For example, after the Kristallnacht pogroms of 1938, the Nazis deviously used Merchant for pernicious propagandistic purposes.
Raised as an observant Ashkenazi Jew, Blumenfeld defined himself today as “a cultural Jew… and secular humanist.” Geer said, “As a kid, I studied Hebrew in New York City… My [maternal] grandfather was a Hungarian Jew.” The Geers “wasn’t a very religious family… Pop and Mom took us to the Unitarian church, occasionally. …In my family, we looked at all religions.”
Interestingly, unlike with the aforementioned Romeo and Rachel Corrie shows, Geer said WGTB’s current production of Merchant hasn’t encountered any pushback.
Given all of the above, it may surprise theatergoers that despite its aforementioned weighty subject matter, Merchant is nonetheless categorized as one of Shakespeare’s comedies. WGTB’s production includes comic elements such as mistaken or disguised identity, cross-dressing, and more. After all, the Stratford-upon-Avon scribe wrote tragedies, comedies, and sonnets — not pamphlets or leaflets. As Blumenfeld stated, “It’s not just that it would be good for you to see this play, but it’s fun… because to me, Shakespeare is entertainment, above all. Shakespeare’s genius is that he gives you the meat, vegetables, and dessert, all in one.”
Geer added that she hopes this season — which includes George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities and Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind to be performed in repertory with Merchant and that perennial favorite, A Midsummer Night’s Dream — “will get people talking and thinking about what it means to be human again” at the enchanting outdoor outpost of theater north of Malibu.
The Merchant of Venice runs through Oct. 1 at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum. http://theatricum.com/the-merchant-of-venice/