Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Merchant of Venice at BAM

Continued from here and here.)

5/14/09. As the lights come up for intermission, the following conversation takes place behind me:

FIRST WOMAN: We’re going home.
MAN: Honey?
FIRST WOMAN: I am so confused. I’m going home.
SECOND WOMAN: What’s wrong?
FIRST WOMAN: I don’t know what’s going on! I’m completely lost and it seems like a waste of time.
SECOND WOMAN: It’s artistic license.
FIRST WOMAN: It’s a license to confuse.
SECOND WOMAN: Like Double-Oh Seven?
FIRST WOMAN: Like Double-Oh What The Fuck.
MAN: What does the program say?
SECOND WOMAN: It’s very dark in here, I can’t read the program.
FIRST WOMAN: You shouldn’t have to read the program to understand what you’re seeing. I don’t understand what I’m seeing. Why jail? I don’t get it. It works against the play.
I have no clue what’s going on. As much as the actors are brilliant, it’s a waste of time. The interpretation obscures the play.

I can’t resist; I turn around and offer a correction over my shoulder:

ME: The alleged interpretation.
FIRST WOMAN: Yes! Thank you! Even the author admits it! The alleged interpretation! Is it saying anything about mercy? Is it saying anything about justice and vengeance? No -- all this play is saying is, “I am the balls -- I’m directing Merchant of Venice like it’s an episode of Oz.”
ME: We never had directors back then, you know. Just stage managers.
FIRST WOMAN: Like Peter Quince in Midsummer’s?
ME: [nodding] Exactly. Just somebody who tells the actors when to enter and exit. The rest was up to us.
FIRST WOMAN: Well that couldn’t have been easy.
ME: It was a lot easier than this.
FIRST WOMAN: I’ll bet. [Standing up; to Second Woman:] Let me know how it ends.
MAN: You mean we’re going?
FIRST WOMAN: Of course we’re going. This is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen in my life. [To me:] No offense.
ME: None taken.

“Well you should take offense,” says the Dark Lady as they walk out. She’s sitting with her arms crossed and her head down, like she’s preparing to gore a matador. “‘Artistic interpretation.’ It’s artistic bollocks, is what it is. It’s a director jumping and down saying ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ Why do they do that?” I shrug. “In my experience, it’s part of the job description,” I say mildly. But the DL is still fuming. “Well you know what? If it was his job to make me sit here for two hours saying to myself ‘What’s that pain in my heel? Oh—right-it’s a shoehorn,’ then he should be promoted.”

I have to agree with her. It is quite possibly one of the most misguided interpretations of Merchant that I have ever seen. It is set entirely in a prison, where the Christians and the Jews go at it like the Aryan Brotherhood versus the Crips and Bloods. Which makes for (a) some interesting byplay between the prisoners and the so-called guards, which becomes totally confusing when (b) the play switches to Belmont, and instead of it being somewhere outside this Venetian jail (a country club prison maybe? Where the Wall Street types hang out and have lesser restrictions and more freedom?), it’s just another cell block on another floor. Why would you need three thousand ducats to bribe a guard to get you access to a different part of the same jail? And if you’re actually asking that question while the scene is happening, doesn’t that mean the interpretation is a total failure?

Well, not total. Everybody tries to make Merchant realistic, when it has more in common with Pericles than it does with Measure for Measure. It’s a fairy tale –- three fairy tales, in fact –- and it’s always been misunderstood. Even when I played Shylock, it was misunderstood. Nobody ever wants it to be about the story –- they want it to be about the character. It’s the Jew play. Shakespeare’s Jew play, as opposed to Marlowe’s Jew play. (Fucking Marlowe. I’ll never get out of his shadow.) It’s the same with Hamlet; the same with Falstaff. Like the character is more important than the story. That upsets me a great deal more than a production which replaces Denmark with Venice in the phrase “Denmark’s a prison.” Making Shylock the center of attention has ruined the play from the beginning. By the time I finished rewriting it in ’96 to make Shylock more rounded, Kempe wasn’t speaking to me and Burbage insisted that we trade roles and I play Bassanio so he could do Shylock. I said no, but I was outvoted. So Shylock became another Humpbacked Dick, and I did Bassanio about as well as Claude Rains would have done Errol Flynn if they had switched roles in Robin Hood -- and Gus Phillips, between his scenes as Antonio, could be heard muttering in the wings, “Now if we could only get rid of those fooking fairy tale subplots.”

But the Shylock in this production does not tower over everyone else. Because it’s all about the director’s interpretation, and not “Anti-Semitism: Pro or Con -– Discuss,” this Shylock is that rarity of rarities: just another actor in an ensemble piece, who has his part to play and plays it without doing the Full Pacino, which is an Italian meal consisting of three courses of scenery followed by scenery a la mode. This Shylock is just another potentially violent prisoner, which is the only refreshing thing in an otherwise confusing evening.

During intermission, a good quarter of the audience has decided to go home and watch the equivalent of bear-baiting (aka American Idol) rather than the second half of my play, which is a pity, because this is the part where the director throws up his hands, cries: “I don’t get this God damn jail thing either!” and just stages the play, period. Which is why it works much better than the first half. If you ignore all the prison cells. And the moments where Portia calls out “Oh jailer!” to Gobbo-doubling-as-Balthasar. And the final scene, which should have taken place as far from Alcatraz as possible.

“It’s the fucking Shylock Redemption,” says the DL as we leave. “All it’s missing is Tim Robbins and a Rita Hayworth poster.” I roar with laughter; Roz is one of the few people who can always make me laugh out loud. Which means of course that I have to top her joke, because I can never let anyone have either the last word or the last laugh.

“In such a night,” I say, “Did Shaxpere’s Jew get twenty-five-to-life, For crimes against artistic truth, which put, The shiv in shivah.” Roz snorts, which is as close as she ever comes to admitting that I’ve said something she thinks is clever. “I can’t believe you’re making jokes about this,” she says. “My dear Roz,” I reply, “when you’ve seen Measure for Measure staged in Auschwitz? You learn to take things with a grain of salt, and not a pound of flesh.” “You’re much more merciful than I am,” says the DL. To which I refrain from telling her, “If this is true, then it is not my nature, but my experience that makes me so forgiving. You too could be this way, my sweet, if you but put yourself in someone else’s place.”

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