The Merchant of Venice remains an ugly play for ugly times | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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The Merchant of Venice remains an ugly play for ugly times

1938 Italy provides the fascist framework for this Invictus staging.

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With anti-Semitism on the rise in the U.S. and Europe, it might make perfect sense to revisit Shakespeare's most nakedly anti-Semitic work. Yes, Shylock gets that "hath not a Jew eyes?" speech, but anyone who is moved by the suggestion that a Jewish man is human like everyone else is probably not a trustworthy ally to begin with. To say the least. Charles Askenaizer's intimate staging of The Merchant of Venice for Invictus Theatre Company sets the story in 1938 Italy, the same time frame as Vittorio De Sica's 1970 film about the rise of Italian fascism, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. But adding Mussolini's blackshirts to the mix doesn't enlarge our understanding of a play that only semi-works if it leans into the fact that all of the characters are pretty terrible people.

Yes, Joseph Beal's Shylock has reason to hate Antonio (Chuck Munro), who opens the play by spitting in his face. Beal's line readings seem strangled by his bile, while Antonio and his smug friends—including blackshirt Lorenzo (Travis Shanahan), who steals Shylock's daughter, Jessica (Courtney Feiler), and his money—have all the swagger of the dominant classes. But both the pound of Antonio's flesh that Shylock demands as forfeit on a loan and the conditions that Julia Badger's Portia place on Shylock in return for his life (forced conversion to Christianity, for starters) are prompted by vengeance unleavened by any quality of mercy.

There are some smart performances here (including Martin Diaz-Valdes as a blissfully broish Bassanio). I'm just not convinced we have much left to learn from this particular play about how anti-Semitism functions. But Invictus at least provides us with a timely reminder that it's never really gone out of fashion.  v

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