Having seen (read “been positively blown away by”) several of Edward Einhorn’s previous shows produced through Untitled Theater Company No. 61, and being a long-time lover of Shakespeare, I was all in for his company’s latest production at the New Ohio Theatre. Purporting to rework The Merchant of Venice as a prescient tragicomedy for our time, The Shylock and the Shakespeareans promised to be a can’t-miss production, especially in the more than capable hands of Einhorn, a brilliant writer and sensitive interpreter.
The story follows the main plot outlined by Shakespeare, with a few deviations. Bassanio, who's handsome but not the sharpest knife in the drawer, asks his rich cousin Antonio to buy a diamond necklace for the girl Bassanio is currently wooing: Portia, a beautiful heiress who's also a judge. Antonio buys the necklace on credit from Jacob (Jeremy Kareken): a wealthy Jew who lives in the ghetto and is despised by Venice's white Christian majority. Meanwhile, Jacob's daughter Jessica is planning to elope with a Christian who's the son of Asian immigrants. All this as a gang calling themselves "The Shakespeareans" harass the city's Jewish inhabitants and spread anti-semitic propoganda. Unlike the original, in which things work out pretty well for everyone except Shylock, this story is more, shall we say, realistic. It's also a lot more concerned with the anti-semitism that lies at the heart of Shakespeare's "comedy."
That word may be part of the problem with this piece--which didn't quite live up to the expectations I had for it. Einhorn's previous productions have shown him more than capable of balancing comedy and tragedy to entertaining and devastating effect, but in this case, it doesn't quite work. Some moments are legitimately funny--such as when Bassanio has to be virtually smacked upside the head in order to choose the right box and win Portia's hand; and a few are thoughtfully poignant--such as a speech by Jessica's would-be husband, a first generation Asian-Italian, about how he dreads the day when the majority comes up with a name for him. But on the whole the show struggles to find its groove. There are also times when it feels a little rough around the edges, something that could potentially be cured with more workshopping.
When the show gets it right, it truly shines. One of those times is in the final scene, where Shakespeare himself appears to speak to the grieving Jessica. At first, it seems as though he may have something truly profound to say. Then he pulls out a prosthetic nose and snaps it on. It's the stereotypical Jewish trope, only, this is Shakespeare--he may have invented that trope. While the Jews silently walk out, the Christians watch, seemingly rapt, as he performs Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes” monologue. The performance swiftly descends into buffoonery, and the final shot is of the Bard, in a bulbous nose, wriggling his fingers in the air like a lunatic. It's a theatrical masterstroke, one that almost resolves the preceding two hours into one cohesive, powerful whole. Almost.
The Shylock and the Shakespeareans runs through June 17 at New Ohio Theatre (154 Christopher St). For tickets and more info, visit newohiotheatre.org.