"Controversial," "loaded," "problematic" and "disturbing" are a few of the words that artistic director Murray Ross uses to describe TheatreWorks' season opener, The Merchant of Venice. But he also throws around words such as "delightful," "charming" and "witty."
So what gives?
"It has the greatest trial scene ever written for the stage, romance, vivid characters, fairy-tale elements, even a clown," Ross says.
Which all contribute to an interesting dynamic when combined with the anti-Semitic attitudes surrounding Shakespeare's vengeful, greedy and hated character, Shylock the Jew.
The plot involves a beautiful heiress (often disguised as a young man) who is trapped by her father's will: She can only marry someone who risks all to solve a riddle for her hand. Her preferred suitor borrows a great deal of money from the wily Shylock, who as it turns out has an ax to grind. He demands a literal "pound of flesh" from his debtor.
Shylock is infused with every negative Jewish stereotype imaginable, and anti-Semitic rhetoric runs rampant in the play. Audiences can find it off-putting, but Ross says that's no excuse to shy away from such a "brilliant" show, which TheatreWorks sets in 1920s high-fashion Italy.
"Shylock is a great villain but also a great victim," Ross says. "We must remember that his malignity is occasioned by the poisonous society in which he lives."
Christopher Lowell plays Shylock, and took a leave from his day job as a Benjamin Franklin impersonator to concentrate on the role. Both he and Ross emphasize the parallels they say can be found between the world of the play and today's issues of financial uncertainty and racial tension. "The exclusion in society of people because of their race, sexuality, religion — well, that ain't over," Lowell says.
But there's no question the TheatreWorks crew will have to strike a delicate balance. Local actor Miriam Roth Ballard, who's Jewish and an admirer of Shakespeare, acknowledges that it is "a work of fiction and a product of its time." Still, she calls some of the attitudes "gross" and says she'd like to "see the audience's reactions almost more than the play itself."
"You just hope the audience is educated enough to know that they shouldn't really believe that," she says, referring to the racist slant of the play. "Instead of promoting bigotry, I hope it promotes discussion. Discussion is never a bad thing."
"An anti-Semitic vehicle is the last damn thing you want to happen," says Ross. He categorizes Merchant as a comedy with some "haunting undertones."
"It entertains and delights people, but there is a shadow there."
... and so is this
The Merchant of Venice will be TheatreWorks' first show since it signed an agreement with the Actors' Equity Association, allowing the company unlimited employment of union actors. Artistic director Murray Ross believes this move will "raise the bar" of excellence for the theater and allow him to go farther afield if needed to find the perfect talent for upcoming shows.
"It really is the official badge of professionalism in the eyes of the American theater," he says.
But because the agreement also mandates that TheatreWorks hire a certain number of Equity actors per season, some locals are worried about their future with the company.
"To the general populace, 'Equity' means quality," notes Alysabeth Clements Mosley, local actress and artistic director of Star Bar Players. But both she and local actor Amy Brooks say this isn't always the case. "I'm OK with [the agreement]," Brooks says, "unless it means that local actors miss out on the big roles and are only used for filling in the blanks."
For locals, union membership is often not feasible, due to the high cost of dues. In addition, many locals who aren't apt to leave the Springs have an incentive not to join, since the majority of opportunities among all the troupes here are non-union.
And then there's pay. Union actors typically get paid more, and Miriam Roth Ballard says that if that's the case, then salary increases should be across the board, for both non-union actors and backstage crew alike. "Otherwise," she says, "it's an uneven way of looking at things."
Ross says everyone in the theater deserves to be paid more, and calls it "a delicate business." But even with the higher salaries given to Equity actors, he says total expenditures on artist salaries will not increase very much this season: "I wish it would!"
And he assures that there will still be plenty of great roles to go around. Only two of the 16 roles in Merchant were awarded to Equity actors, and he estimates that in the coming season, 24 of roughly 100 roles will go to union members.
"For three decades, we've built our reputation on the talent here," he says. "We're not likely to forget that."
— Lynn Jacobs