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I never thought Shakespeare's play "The Merchant of Venice" could be made to work in an updated production, but Michael Donald Edwards' staging at OSF Ashland does so in grand fashion. It's not any particular period, but includes periwig and pigtail and Victorian, with touches of the Spanish Inquisition among others. It's set to snippets of classical music ranging from Mozart to Beethoven to Wagner. This is a strange play with outrageously funny humor that's almost slapstick, but it's also one of the most overtly racist works I've ever seen, and this production highlights both of these aspects.

When Antonio goes to Shylock to borrow money so that Bassanio can try his hand at winning Portia, Shylock agrees, but says he won't eat, drink, or pray with them. Among his grievances against Antonio, he loves simplicity, won't lend or borrow money on advantage, brings down the value of usury, and that the standard way of addressing him is Jew Dog or Devil, or somesuch epithet. Almost in jest, Shylock demands a pound of flesh against the 3,000 ducats instead of interest. As the play develops that pound takes on new and serious meaning.

Robin Goodrin Nordli is a tremendous Portia. She completely captures you with a nod or gesture, or her tone of voice. She brings genuine life magic to the part. When she's reviewing her list of suitors with Nerissa, she does mocking impressions of each, and says "If I live to be as old as Sybilla, I will die as chaste as Diana." When the Prince of Morocco tries and fails, she says "May all of your complexion fair the same."

Shylock's servant Launcelot hates the Jew. He's plotting to leave when his old blind father appears, but doesn't believe it's him. It's a Keystone Cops type of slapstick scene that is relentlessly funny. Bassanio then hires him away. Shylock's daughter Jessica gives him money, and they plot her escape with Lorenzo so she can marry him and become a Christian. She's ashamed to be her father's daughter, a Jew.

The wild mirth gives way to hoods and robes of the Spanish Inquisition. Shylock is crazy with grief that his daughter has run off with his jewels, his money, and a Christian. The more he grieves, the more the Inquisitors mock him until they dance with a devil mask, raise a cross at him and light torches like an auto-da-fé complete with the music from the "Don Carlos" scene. The Anti-Semiticism is at a fever pitch, and it's easy to see why Shylock becomes so hardened and vengeful. Anyone would, being subjected to hate, ridicule, and mockery like that. In his soliloquy Tony de Bruno's Shylock is mighty convincing as he asks "Has not a Jew, blood, passions, feelings, etc., culminating with "the villainy you teach me I will execute and will better my instructor." This is why he will take revenge on Antonio, and this is where he crosses his Rubicon. From this point on, there is no return.

When Antonio's fortunes turn sour Shylock rejoices. It's almost like karma. Antonio has fanned all this hate against him, and now he will default on his debt. Shylock no longer wants money, only revenge. In the courtroom scene, as everyone reviles him with "Jew Devil/Jew Dog" epithets, he becomes more hardened. Finally, when Portia, disguised as the Judge tells him he can have exactly one pound of flesh, but he can't draw one drop of blood, Shylock agrees to take the money, but they won't let him. Now they take his estate and divide it between Antonio and the state. They also say the law provides for his execution. In a grand gesture, they grant him his life. Everything almost works when Antonio and the Duke give him back his property but make him award it to his daughter and her husband at his death. The humiliation is completed, though, when they make him renounce his God and become a Christian as a condition of this.

Everyone else is reconciled and lives happily ever after in the happy finale, but the sourness of complete and total degradation, humiliation, and destruction of Shylock certainly leaves a sour taste for me. "The Merchant of Venice" is, quite possibly, the most blatantly racist play I've ever seen. Shakespeare masterfully shows the causes of it and the hate and vengefulness it engenders, but then he even seems to reward this when Antonio's ships come in at the end. It's very disturbing, and this OSF production highlights it both in itself and through the juxtaposition of the comedy and the hate. "The Merchant of Venice" continues outdoors on The Elizabethan stage through Oct. 5 along with "Troilus and Cressida" and "The Merry Wives of Windsor."


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