Willow Geer (left) is Portia and Alan Blumenfeld is Shylock in in “The Merchant of Venice.” Photo by Ian FLanders

Our time is right for staging of ‘Merchant of Venice’

What is “The Merchant of Venice” selling? Is it anti-Semitism or a dramatic commentary on the anti-Semitism of William Shakespeare’s time? With a view favoring the latter, a new production of the controversial play, opening June 3 at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon, is being staged as a commentary on the anti-Semitism of our own time.

The 16th-century play has a long history of prompting unease, ire, protest and censure from Jews for its portrayal of Shylock, a vengeful Jewish moneylender who demands a pound of flesh for repayment of a debt. In light of a recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States and in countries around the world, the producers of this updated version believe it is time to look at the play with fresh and wary eyes again, after they produced it 15 years ago.

“There’s so much anti-Semitism in the world, and this play is perfect for now because it mirrors our own society a bit,” said Ellen Geer, artistic director of Theatricum Botanicum and the director of both productions of the play.

The play addresses a “lack of caring about humanity — it puts it right smack in front of your face,” said Geer, the daughter of the late Will Geer, an actor and social activist who was the theater’s founder. “It’s a beautiful piece of art about human beings when there is no love and caring about each other” — a condition she sees mirrored in the political reality and economic disparity of our times.

Alan Blumenfeld, the actor playing the leading role of Shylock, agrees about the timeliness of the production. “In a time when we have rising anti-Semitism and bigotry and hatred and violence in the world and in our country, there is no better time to do this play,” he said.

Blumenfeld, who played Shylock the last time Theatricum Botanicum staged “The Merchant of Venice,” hopes the audience will see in the play, which has characters spitting at Shylock, “an all-too-real reflection of what’s going on [today],” similar to people pulling headscarves off Muslims, turbans off Sikhs or yarmulkes off Jews.

After the July 15 performance, audience members will have an opportunity to air their thoughts on the play in a “prologue discussion.”

“We want now to have the audience deal with it and face it,” Blumenfeld said. “I welcome the conversation.”

The play and Shylock — who often is invoked as a Jewish stereotype of greed and callousness — have generated discussion among Jews for centuries. In the 1920s and ’30s, during a period of rising anti-Semitism throughout the world, the B’nai B’rith Messenger, Los Angeles’ Jewish newspaper of the time, published several articles on whether the play should be banned from public schools, along with a commentary that argued it should not be censored at all.

“Fifteen years ago, there was a real fear from the Jewish community about doing this play because in their mind it was something detrimental, and it’s not,” said Geer, who believes the community’s attitude has changed.

That discussion continues today, with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) offering a guide for high school teachers that explores “the problematic issue of anti-Semitism as a part of the broader discussion of the play.” Theatricum Botanicum also runs its own program called “School Days” to educate a younger audience from the Los Angeles Unified School District about its productions, including “The Merchant of Venice.”

The depiction of the play’s lead character has taken on its own cultural reality, with even Merriam-Webster defining a shylock as a “loan shark,” an image that Blumenfeld doesn’t think “will ever disappear from the cultural imagination.” Calling someone a “shylock” still is considered an anti-Semitic slur, as then-Vice President Joe Biden learned in 2014, when he was criticized by the ADL for using the word in referring to those who make bad loans to people in the military (a gaffe for which he apologized).

Still Blemenfield said, “I don’t think that the play is an anti-Semitic play.” said Blumenfeld. As if to give a preview of the prologue discussion to come, he pointed out that even though Shylock does ask Antonio, the merchant of the play’s title, for a pound of flesh in their contract, it is done, as the text says, in “merry sport. It’s a joke, an aftselakhis,” Blumenfeld said, using the Yiddish word that roughly means “to spite you.”

Blumenfeld, who has been a guest star on more than 300 television episodes and performed in more than 40 films, is perhaps best known to TV viewers as the telepathic father in the NBC series “Heroes.” He also has directed a series of plays that dealt with the secular history of the Jewish experience in the United States, written by his wife, Katherine James. As a Jewish actor in the role of Shylock, Blumenfeld, who was raised a Conservative Jew and is a member of the humanistic-oriented Sholem Community, said the challenge is “to find a complete human within what could be a stereotype.” He noted that, in the past, actors playing Shylock often would “put on a red wig and big, hooked nose, and you would play the evil Jew, even with the language that defies it.”

In pursuit of a more nuanced portrayal as well as an imprimatur, Blumenfeld said two rabbis were consulted before going into production — Rabbi Susan Goldberg of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and Rabbi David Bouskila, director of the Sephardic Educational Center. Considering that the play is set in the 1500s — Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492 — “both rabbis agreed that Venetian Jews would be Sephardic,” he said. As a result, one scene is going to have a Sephardic lullaby added called “Durme Durme,” which Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, will sing to him — an addition the actor hopes will help his character seem more human.

“We need some insight into Shylock as a loving person,” Blumenfeld said.

He also expects that some of the recent acts of anti-Semitism that have gotten attention — such as the overturning of headstones in a St. Louis Jewish cemetery and the carving of swastikas into cars in Denver — will help a younger audience see Shylock from a more recognizable perspective. “Our parents saw Jews humiliated in public in Nazi Germany,” but a younger generation “has not seen that until now,” he said.

By the play’s end, Shylock suffers humiliation, is broken financially and is forced to convert to Christianity. Blumenfeld hopes the audience, due to their own recent rude awakening, will now have some rachmones, or compassion, for him. 

“The Merchant of Venice” opens June 3 and runs through Oct. 1 at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. A prologue discussion will follow the July 15 performance. For tickets and information, call (310) 455-3723 or visit theatricum.com. 

Argentine President Kirchner doesn’t understand why her Shylock comment angers Jews

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is in trouble over her evoking of William Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” Jewish antagonist, Shylock, in an attempt to explain Argentina’s national debt to… schoolchildren.

Argentine Jews, needless to say, were not amused.

Kirchner told the kids that Argentina’s economic trouble could be understood by reading “The Merchant of Venice,” where the heartless Jewish moneylender seeks revenge on his nice, Christian debtors, whose only fault is that they took his money and wouldn’t give it back.

Kirchner tweeted that the idea had come to her after she asked the children what Shakespeare play they were reading and they told her: “Romeo and Juliet.”

And, so, she tweeted, “I said, you have to read the ‘Merchant of Venice’ to understand the vulture funds,” and that, apparently, made everybody laugh. So she tweeted, “No, don’t laugh, Usury and bloodsuckers have been immortalized in the greatest literature for centuries.”

The vulture banker, in case you haven’t been following the Argentine debt crisis over the past decade or more, is Jewish Billionaire Paul Singer, whom Kirchner and her Minister of the Economy Axel Kicillof have actually accused of behaving like a vulture — for insisting Argentina pay him back the $1.5 billion they owe him.

He’s dragged them through US courts, and has been beating them, to the point where the Argentine credit rating has been seriously curtailed. And when they offer him fistfuls of Argentine pesos he insists—Shylock that he is—on green bucks, which clearly spell, “In God we trust,” not in Argentine promissory notes.

This is, then, an ancient rivalry, and the President figured she was using humor to illustrate financial matters for the little ones.

Kirchner would not apologize, and instead tweeted an ad for “The Merchant of Venice” which was performed two years ago in Spain by an Israeli company.

Which means she honestly did not comprehend the difference between watching a WW2 movie and joining the Nazi party.

The last political celebrity to put his foot in his mouth over “The Merchant” was everybody’s favorite VP, Joe Biden. Speaking at a conference celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Legal Services Corporation, Biden shared stories he’d heard from his son (now departed), Beau, about his military experience in Iraq as Major in the Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps.

“That’s one of the things that he finds was most in need when he was over there in Iraq for a year,” Biden said, “that people would come to him and talk about what was happening to them at home in terms of foreclosures, in terms of bad loans that were being…I mean these Shylocks who took advantage of, um, these women and men while overseas.”

It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Biden regrets making ‘Shylock’ reference

Vice President Joe Biden acknowledged that he made a “poor choice of words” in using the term “Shylock” to describe unscrupulous lenders.

Biden was reacting Wednesday to remarks by Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, in response to the vice president’s use of the term this week.

Speaking to the Legal Services Organization, a group that funds legal assistance for the poor, Biden referred to the experience of his son Beau, the Delaware attorney general who has served in Iraq.

Beau Biden, the vice president said, had been approached by service members who had been preyed upon by unscrupulous lenders.

“People would come to him and talk about what was happening to them at home in terms of foreclosures, in terms of bad loans that were being — I mean, these Shylocks who took advantage of these women and men while overseas,” he said.

Foxman, in a statement to Yahoo News, said the term was “offensive.”

“When someone as friendly to the Jewish community and open and tolerant an individual as is Vice President Joe Biden uses the term ‘Shylocked’ to describe unscrupulous moneylenders dealing with servicemen and women, we see once again how deeply embedded this stereotype about Jews is in society,” Foxman said.

In a statement emailed from his office to JTA, Biden agreed with that characterization.

“Abe Foxman has been a friend and advisor of mine for a long time,” Biden said. “He’s correct, it was a poor choice of words, particularly, as he said, coming from ‘someone as friendly to the Jewish community and open and tolerant an individual as is Vice President Joe Biden.’ He’s right.”

Abraham unlocks nuances of Shylock in ‘Merchant’

F. Murray Abraham’s performance as Shylock, praised by New York critics as the greatest in memory, owes much to the fact that the actor is almost invariably taken as Jewish.

That pardonable error, he says, is central to his portrayal of the much-vilified Jewish moneylender in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” which opens April 14 on The Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

The initial “F” in Abraham’s name stands for Fahrid: His father emigrated from Syria to the United States in the 1920s, and his grandfather was a chanter, equivalent to cantor, in the Syrian (Syriac) Orthodox Church, a denomination that traces its origin to the very beginning of Christianity.

However, everyone calls him “Murray,” he peppers his conversation with words like mishpachah, landsman and mazel tov, and, “Even people who know I’m not Jewish insist that I am,” he said.

In a phone call from Boston, one stop on his four-city tour of “The Merchant of Venice,” Abraham related a recurring little fantasy.

“I’m flying in a plane that’s taken over by Arab hijackers,” he said. “They collect all the passports, see the name Murray Abraham and get ready to shoot me as a Jew. I won’t tell them otherwise, but I think, ‘The joke is on you — you’re killing one of your own kind.’ ”

The present tour of “Merchant” started in New York, where critics like The New York Times’ Charles Isherwood went unusually wild over the production, including the direction by Darko Tresnjak and, particularly, Abraham’s rendition of Shylock.

The character of the Jewish moneylender, originally portrayed as an unmitigated villain, has been gradually humanized, but arguably no previous interpretation has gone as far as Abraham’s. In an era of virulent anti-Semitism in Christian Europe, “Shakespeare was the first playwright to draw the Jew as a human being, rather than just as the devil,” Abraham said.

“I think Shylock is a great, strong man, who has been driven [to his revenge]. If I’m successful in conveying this, audience members will feel that they would have chosen the same course as Shylock.

“As a matter of fact, some people have written me, after seeing the play, that ‘Shylock should have taken the pound of flesh. Antonio deserved it.’ ”

Abraham noted that his calling as an actor demands that he bring a sense of humanity to even the most reprehensible character, for otherwise “he becomes just a cartoon.”

In this sense, his greatest professional challenge was to portray Roy Cohn, Sen. Joe McCarthy’s right-hand man, in the Broadway production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.”

“I hated Cohn so much, I didn’t know whether I could play him,” Abraham recalled. “Then, during an overseas flight, I was reading the script and next to me sat a man who recognized me. He told me he was a lawyer and had gone up against Cohn in an earlier case.

“I asked the man what Cohn was like, and he answered: ‘Roy Cohn was the best lawyer I have ever seen. I couldn’t take my eyes off him.’ That statement opened the door into Cohn’s character,” Abraham said. “I had found one way to respect the man.”

Director Tresnjak stages “Merchant” in modern dress, with Wall Street replacing the Rialto of 16th century Venice. This device, and the actors’ approach, connects the play to today’s headlines in a very direct, if painful, way.

Now, as five centuries ago, “We have a warped system of justice in which the rich bend the law for their own benefit,” Abraham observed. “We nail people, as the Venetians did with Shylock, by calling them aliens.

“What is it about human nature that we need to spit on others?” he asked. “Look what the Jews and Arabs are doing to each other. They’re cousins, for God’s sake. Or do we fight because we’re family?”

Abraham was born in Pittsburgh but grew up in El Paso, Texas, where his Jewish friends taught him to pronounce mishpachah the Southern way. At 71, he can look back on a career record of some 90 stage plays and 80 movies. His prizes include a best actor Oscar for his role as Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s nemesis, in the 1984 film “Amadeus.”

Yet, for all his experience, and after playing Shylock more than 100 times, there are still times when Abraham will suddenly forget a line.

“It happened to me yesterday [in Boston],” he acknowledged. “If that had occurred when I started out as an actor, I would have wet my pants, but now I don’t scare anymore.

“Since I’m such a great actor,” Abraham added with a laugh, “I just gave Shylock a brief, thoughtful pause, and the play went on.”

His upcoming run in Los Angeles marks a return to the city of his stage debut, in the 1966 production of Ray Bradbury’s “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit,” at the venerable Coronet Theatre.

“The Merchant of Venice” will run April 14-24 at the 499-seat Broad Stage in Santa Monica. Parking is free. For information and tickets, phone (310) 434-3200 or visit www.thebroadstage.com.

The Arrogant Poet You Love to Hate

In “Pound of Flesh,” at the Odyssey Theater, Ezra Pound spars with Pvt. Cooper, a young soldier who keeps him company while he awaits trial in Italy for his crimes of treachery against the United States in World War II. If this private is not Pound’s intellectual match, he more than matches the poet on moral grounds.

Michael Peter Bolus, who wrote and directed the play, first considered using a Jewish soldier as Pound’s foil. But Pvt. Rothberg, the fictional man he created, was too brainy, too intellectual, and the debates between the two divested the play of its inherent drama and left it as a case of talking heads. Though Bolus changed Rothberg into a non-Jew, the character “wouldn’t go away,” says the playwright. Rothberg turned into “a shadowy presence” haunting the play. Behind the scenes, it is Rothberg who teaches Cooper what Pound’s poetry is all about — hatred.

This is not a new point of view. Critics as eminent as Harold Bloom find little aesthetic value in Pound’s work. Still, Pound was one of the leading poets of the past century. As Bolus says, “It’s difficult, if not impossible, to confront 20th century literature without confronting Ezra Pound.”

Thirteen years after the Odyssey staged Tom Dulack’s “Incommunicado,” a play that also tackled Pound’s days in a wartime prison but with a larger cast, “Pound of Flesh” goes beyond the modern question of asking whether an artist can be separated from his art. Where writers like Philip Roth still produce inspiring work even if they live morally dubious lives, Pound did not conceal the malevolence in his poetry.

“Unlike a lot of anti-Semites and racists, his racism is right there in the poetry,” says playwright Bolus, who studied poetry with Derek Walcott, and got a Ph.D. in theater studies at the City University of New York.

The title of “Pound of Flesh,” of course, invokes Shylock’s famous words in “The Merchant of Venice,” and Bolus does a remarkable job of capturing the arrogance, the brilliance and the over-the-top hubris of the poet. His voice is quite distinctive and comes through even when reading the script. Bolus also nicely allows the non-Jewish soldier to turn the tables on Pound, even correcting him on his grammar.

Say what one will about Shylock, but he never ended a sentence with a preposition — something Pound does in this play.

“Pound of Flesh” plays at the Odyssey Theater, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. (except June 4 and June 11 shows at 2 p.m.). Through June 25. (310) 477-2055.