One might expect anti-Semitic graffiti in, say, the West Bank, or Eastern Europe, where the history of pogroms is still in the air. But last month a friend and I were walking through a relatively liberal area in central Houston and saw that on the outside wall of a market, someone had used a black marker to scribble the words, "Fuck jews." After we reported it to the owner, and then the police, the graffiti was finally removed.
The fact that anti-Semitism can still find some crude expression in the middle of Houston is reason enough to argue that Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice has immediacy on these shores.
There's Shylock, the Jewish money lender, betrayed by his daughter, Jessica, and loathed by the Venetians for being Jewish — or maybe just for being himself: spitefully exacting his "pound of flesh" bond from the merchant Antonio, whose ships, carrying his ability to repay his loan, went asunder.
It's Shylock's spite that rolls through the "comedy" with such prescience, smashing head-on into Portia's "quality of mercy" speech, two points of view that speak directly to the looming paradox of Israel's survival in the face of Palestinian self-determination.
Such a recent, violent history of entitlements and abuse, in the play as in the Middle East, renders the quality of mercy a quixotic ideal.
Broadway recently presented Al Pacino's wondrous Shylock; we got F. Murray Abraham's less flashy, more nuanced Shylock earlier this year at Santa Monica's Broad Stage.
So there's a kind of audacity in the Porters of Hellgate choosing to enter the ring at the Whitemore Theatre in North Hollywood. The troupe pulled a solid Oedipus the King out of its hat last fall, but Thomas Bigley's staging of Merchant is more perplexing.
He frames the production in 1950s America for some elusive reason. We'd seen, a decade prior, Japanese-Americans interned in desert camps throughout the Southwest. The '50s was our decade of anticommunist witch hunts — there were still lynchings of blacks in the South, and there must have been some pockets of anti-Semitism at the time, as in every time. And though the U.S. government was protecting certain scientists who had been part of Nazi Germany's war machine, the American 1950s doesn't seem distinctive for anti-Semitic bigotry.
It would appear that the concept merely provides a pretext for Jessica Pasternak's sleek costumes, which help make the production visually enticing.
Bigley's own set design is a spartan affair, with a couple of platforms and a stock market chalkboard upstage. Though the people dress like Doris Day and Rock Hudson, there's no electricity in the stock exchange board. Perhaps this is some kind of Venetian Wall Street transmuted to 1950s Appalachia?
The production boasts some serviceable performances: Brian Weiss's Bassanio, on whose behalf Antonio borrows the money, and Alex Parker's Antonio hold their own. Elisa Richter has a sweet and sweetly ironic turn as Shylock's daughter, Jessica. Liza de Weerd and Kelly Cretti are also fine as Bassanio's love interest, Portia, and her maid, Nerissa, though Melissa Harkness as Portia's servant performs in a faithfully executed vaudeville plucked from a completely different production.
The hole in the middle comes from Gus Krieger's miscast Shylock — far too young to be persuasive as Jessica's father, and with a mumbling Eastern European cadence, combined with shrugging gestures and intonations taken from Woody Allen, that all conspire against the depiction of rising anguish, and the larger causes of it.
Act 1 is a washout, yet Act 2, when Shylock goes to court to collect his bond, contains entrancing moments, partly because the play itself is flameproofed with some of the best speeches in the English language, and partly because the company feels the drama with a unity of style otherwise fluttering aimlessly.
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But merely performing a play in an arbitrary historical setting is not sufficient reason to do a play such as this. It aches to be informed by our times, or past times, through insights more expressive than an excellent costume design.
"Fuck jews" scribbled on the wall of a Houston market is reason enough to do this play. There are countless other reasons as well, but the Porters of Hellgate need to find a reason of their own.
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE | By William Shakespeare | Presented by the Porters of Hellgate | Whitmore Theatre, 11006 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. | Through Sept. 18 | (818) 325-2055 | brownpapertickets.com/event/187159