‘The Merchant of Venice’ at the Kennedy Center

When the audience starts to stream into the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater for the highly anticipated four-day visit of the Shakespeare’s Globe on Tour production of “The Merchant of Venice,” the stage begins to fill with revelers, gaudily dressed up in the fashion of 17th-century Venice, prancing, dancing, toasting each other, downing cups of wine at an alarming pace.

It’s a friendly, festive, good-natured mood, even inviting. These young swains and ladies are enjoying themselves, with some couples appearing to try to invent an early version of lap dancing, and they want to share their fun, peering out at the audience, one of them waving. Sure enough, the man sitting in front of me, after some consideration, waved back.

This interactive mode — it continues in the middle of the production, when Balthazar, the servant of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, drags two audience members onto the stage to argue the merits of whether he should leave his master — adds a certain intimacy to the proceedings with an interesting side effect, like a hangover.

The party-hearty mode at the start turns shockingly dark when two men, dressed formally in red robes with an identifying star, are assaulted by the young revelers, beaten and kicked and spat upon and railed against as filthy Jews.

That’s when the audience becomes aware that while there are laughs and romance in this trickiest of Shakespeare’s plays, “The Merchant of Venice” is above all about the effects of blind hate, bigotry and in this case overt anti-Semitism, and that this production, starring Jonathan Pryce as Shylock, which runs through Saturday, July 30, will take you into heartless and heart-rending territory.

The play is almost always classified as the most complicated example of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” a heady mixture of darkness with broad comedy — in the scenes in which the wealthy, witty, beautiful and rich heiress Portia parries off suitors who must choose correctly among three casks to win her affections (and fortune). “All’s Well That Ends Well,” which doesn’t end well, is another example.

The romance is often charming, but it’s also the cause of the play’s dark heart, in which the handsome Bassanio — the swain Portia actually prefers — asks his cherished friend, the merchant Antonio, for a loan so that he can present himself properly in the game of casks. Antonio, who appears to have a deep, and perhaps deeper, love for his friend, goes to Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, a man whom he despises and treats with disdain, for the money. Shylock reluctantly gives him the sum required with one condition, that the surety and bond be a pound of flesh that would be carved — by Shylock — from his body.

The character of Shylock has been controversial practically from day one. Today, it’s still considered by many to be an anti-Semitic caricature. He’s characterized (by the Venetians, if not Shakespeare) as a dog, a usurer, a Christ-killer, in vile, rippling, wounding, hateful animalistic slurs.

All of the elements — the confounding ones, the bigoted language, as well as the humor and the wit — are here. But the effect is different.

To begin with, the Venetians are presented as reckless, violent and passionately, casually and directly bigoted in their treatment of Jews, who live in a ghetto. They are not only careless with their money but also their affections.

With Pryce as Shylock, the role becomes elevated to a humanity, it is assumed, it has not always had. In Shakespeare’s time, Jews — of which there were few in England — were the objects of negative stereotyping as to their appearance and character.

Pryce’s Shylock is not by any means generous toward his Christian acquaintances, but he deals with them with patience, even when insulted or spat upon, even when his own daughter, Jessica, played with a yearning spirit, elopes with a Venetian Christian with her father’s money. Pryce presents Shylock as a man with a grievance, but also a man of the law; against all notions of profit and advantage, he insists on “my bond, my pound of flesh.” He presents a face and a demeanor to the audience that is weary, strong, pained, frustrated. All of his expressions, his gestures, represent a kind of open wound of a lifetime of suffering endured with dignity. To be sure, he is obdurate, even cruel, but in this fight for the letter of the law, he presents a cry for his humanity: attention must be paid.

It is in the end, a disastrous and horrible result when he confronts Portia, disguised as a man and a lawyer, learned, desirous of protecting her new fiancé and his friends. Her cool logic upends the law, and slices and dices Shylock’s argument with the efficiency of a legal assassin. Shylock not only loses his wealth, but his faith in a forced conversion.

In some ways, this production, directed with smart and swift pacing (it goes for more than two and a half hours) by Jonathan Munby, means to transform the play, change how the audience looks at it, without changing the words, the language, even the structure. It’s a difficult task, somewhat on the order of cutting a heart from the body without shedding blood.

One of the essential problems of the play is that much of it — the cask episodes, the sexual wordplay, the male-female battles, those much beloved tests of lost rings — is high entertainment, predictable but pleasant in digestion. And the language, so surprisingly familiar, is presented clearly, as if spoken instead of written. I heard a young man talking outside, saying how he for the first time was totally focused on each and every word and sentence (perhaps a new experience for those who communicate by texting).

Portia, ably, with diamond-sharp grace and movement, played by the slender, tall and blond Rachel Pickup, presents us with a woman who appears too smart for her own time, which is perhaps why she wants to be swept away in some way that denotes the deepest love. She is, nonetheless, an object, not so much of affection, as desire — sexual-wise for her beauty, financial- and prestige-wise for her wealth. She has to dress up as a man to really let her use her considerable, if cold, intelligence.

But it’s Pryce’s fleshed-out dignity, trembling and human in the end, which sweeps away the audience, with considerable help from his own daughter, the young actress Phoebe Pryce, who plays Shylock’s daughter Jessica. She is an uncommon stage presence, a strong deer adrift in someone else’s forest for love, suffering the loss of her father, the loss of identity.

Then there’s our piece of action. All this invitation to the party, the interaction, the congeniality directed at the audience is fun for us. We’re invited to have a good time. And when we do, we realize that to some degree, we’ve become complicit.

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