“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” was spoken by the narrator of the Detective Story Hour radio show starting in 1930. The narrator was called The Shadow, and his answer to the question was, “Only the Shadow knows” This type of storytelling with a narrator knowing what was in the hearts and minds of the characters was and is part and parcel of the playwright’s craft. The things that motivate characters to act and react are known to the story’s creator and are revealed through the performers’ skills. If done successfully, then the audience will know not only what evil lurks in people’s hearts but also what love and compassion lurk there or what vengeance and anger do as well.
The Shylock and the Shakespeareans, written and directed by Edward Einhorn, is a play that takes its form from The Merchant of Venice, reputed to be by William Shakespeare, and modifies it to make antisemitism the primary focus. Doing so is a simplification of the complex themes of the source material, where antisemitism is one element in the story arc.
Einhorn has reshaped the dramatic elements of the original play to focus primarily on antisemitism. What he achieves is a show that highlights how the antisemitism of the 16th century is connected to the religious dogma of that period, with aspects of it extending to the present day. Although it is superficially faithful to the themes of the source, it is still a play that deals with the elements of prejudice, justice, love, and societal norms within the context of antisemitism. It is for an audience that enjoys a well-acted, thought-provoking story with a solid point of view.
The play loosely follows the structure of The Merchant of Venice with the use of character names, jobs, titles, locations, and the overall flow of the story. If you are not familiar with The Merchant of Venice, it was billed as a comedy, and there is humor in it and the current play, although it is not, strictly speaking, a comedy. The main plot involves a contract between Jacob, known as Shylock, a Jewish money lender, and Antonio, a Christian merchant, concerning a loan from Jacob. This basic situation is wrapped in the more prominent themes of prejudice, justice, and mercy. Religion plays a role in creating the tension that allows the exploration of the complex nature of human interactions within a social milieu, but it is not the central point of the play. The personal choices each man makes, based on ego and greed, is the point, despite their religious beliefs, and by extension, how the society at large reflects those traits.
The Shylock and the Shakespeareans is set in Venice, where a Christian, antisemitic, white-supremacist group called the Shakespeareans, supposedly inspired by William Shakespeare, have forcefully inserted their ideology into the public conversation about race and religion. Jacob (Jeremy Kareken), a Jew called Shylock by the Christians, is a diamond merchant who reluctantly accepts a loan contract from a merchant, Antonio (Eric E. Oleson), in exchange for a diamond necklace. The contract, the fortunes and misfortunes of these two men are the play’s driving force. Complicating the issues surrounding the contract is that Antonio is a member of the Shakespeareans.
Mixed into this central theme are several romantic relationships among a number of the supporting characters. Jacob’s daughter Jessica (Yael Haskal) wants to marry her Christian boyfriend Lorenzo (Chase Lee) and is willing to convert to Christianity to do so. Portia (Nalina Mann), a wealthy noblewoman, is in love with Bassanio (Chapman Hyatt), Antonio’s cousin, but has to deal with a bizarre test set up by her late father, the winner of which will be able to marry her. Nerissa (Stephanie Litchfield), a maid to Portia, is having an affair with Gratiano (Thomas Shuman), Antonio’s assistant. Rounding out this group of characters is Gobbo (Craig Anderson), the leader of the Shakespeareans, a former servant to Jacob, and a fool.
All the performances are well-tuned to the portrayed characters, with some especially noteworthy. Anderson skillfully embodies Gobbo’s use of a charismatic facade as the bully leader of the Shakespeareans to hide his intellectual challenges and his cowardice. The character also provides some comic relief with his malapropisms. Litchfield gives a strong comedic performance as Nerissa giving the character a lightness of expression that borders on slapstick without going overboard. Her comic timing and comedic physicality fit perfectly with the character. Kareken’s portrayal of Jacob’s struggle with morality and desire for revenge against the Christians, who have wronged him for years, is compelling. Equally as solid is Oleson’s characterization of the egocentric arrogance of Antonio when it comes to money, his business interests, and his hatred of Jews. Yael Haskal gives a credible performance as Jessica showing her struggle with abandoning Judaism for the love of a Christian, but her performance in the penultimate scene is emotionally powerful. She brings out all of her repressed deep feelings for her father.
Becca Silbert’s sound design is interesting and effective. She utilizes the skillful Richard Philbin to provide musical interludes from various woodwinds during the scene changes. The use of this particular type of music adds an interesting dimension to the flow of the play operating as a welcome distraction from the setting of the next scene. Mike Mroch’s set design effectively uses a limited array of props to convey the various changes in scene locales. The posters and graffiti on the stage walls in all scenes are an issue with the design. The costumes are a mix of contemporary ensembles adjusted to appear 16th century and contemporary military fatigues worn by various members of the Shakespearians. The lighting design by Eric Norbury is effective in moving the focus of action in the scene changes. There is one issue near the end of the play when a pair of lights upstage shine directly into the audience. It would be a serious issue if not for the strength of the performances at that point in the play.
The Shylock and the Shakespeareans (through June 17, 2023)
Untitled Theater Company No. 61
New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit ://newohiotheatre.org/programs/new-ohio-hosts/the-shylock-and-the-shakespeareans
Running time: two hours and ten minutes including one intermission