Anyone for Venice?

Shylock, the malevolent old Jewish usurer of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, has been subjected, over the centuries, to a wide variety of interpretations. Growing out of the tradition of English anti-Semitism that produced such stereotypically wicked portraits as Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, the old Belmont moneylender has been played as everything from deadly villain to ridiculous buffoon to tragic victim to--most sensibly--a combination of the above.

The spiteful loan shark gets the title character, the smug Christian merchant Antonio, at his mercy when the merchant defaults on a bond, entitling Shylock to cut away a pound of Antonio's flesh. In the courtroom climax, the heroine, Portia, masquerading as a young lawyer, pleads with Shylock to show Antonio mercy, and when he proves hard-hearted, she uses a legal trick to outwit him. In what Shakespeare apparently regarded as a generous ending, Shylock is compelled to become a Christian.

A 1932 production by the famed Russian director Theodore Komisarjevsky depicted Shylock as a demonic symbol of parasitical capitalism. In a propagandistic 1943 production in Vienna, Werner Krauss--best known for the title role in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari--played the part in keeping with the horrible racial caricature of Nazi paranoia. And, at the other end of the spectrum, in a 1970 production, Laurence Olivier brought the role all the pathos and poignancy he could muster--at the end, there was even an offstage Kaddish to suggest that Shylock had succumbed after his final defeat.

The Merchant of Venice that opens this weekend at Southwest Shakespeare Company in Mesa has its own rare twist: a black Shylock. Familiar Valley actor Ken Love, who plays the part, found in his research that the first time a major black actor--the pioneering African-American stage star Ira Aldrige (1807-1867)--took on the role, he did so in white face.

Love, whose prior experience with Shakespeare includes the French king in The Essential Henry V for Actors Theatre of Phoenix, Claudius in Hamlet for Arizona Shakespeare Festival and Antipholous of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors at the New Stage Theatre in Jackson, Mississippi, doesn't approach Shylock with any racial interpretation. "I didn't really think of it in those terms. I try neither to make him too sympathetic nor too villainous" says Love, "but just to put my own spin on the role."

He acknowledges, however, that simply having a black man in the role holds provocative implications for the audience. "In this country, African-Americans and Jews share a love-hate relationship. Between us, we've contributed the most to American culture, to music, to theater. Yet there's this conflict between us, which I don't get, but me playing the role of Shylock seems to embody those contradictions. I think it'll be an interesting amalgamation for the audience."

There's one other difference between Love and other Shylocks--his size. Love is a large man, and Shakespeare's miser is most often thought of as small and cringing. "[Director] Gene Ganssle and I talked about that," says Love. "Gene wanted me to use my whole body, to be as physically intimidating as possible. It adds to the tragic element of the play."

--M. V. Moorhead

The Merchant of Venice opens with performances on Thursday, October 1; Friday, October 2; and Saturday, October 3. All start at 8 p.m. Various preshow and postshow activities are planned. Tickets are $15, $12 for students and seniors. The run continues through Saturday, October 10. Mesa Amphitheatre, located at Center and University. 644-2560 (Mesa Community Center Box Office), 503-5555 (Dillard's).

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M.V. Moorhead
Contact: M.V. Moorhead