December 19, 2018

Jewish Revisionist ‘Merchant of Venice’

Photo by Alex Miller

Regarded as one of William Shakespeare’s greatest plays, “The Merchant of Venice” has also been a painful thorn in Jewish sides, its antagonist Shylock epitomizing the stereotype of the miserly Jew and perpetuating anti-Semitism for more than 400 years. 

Sarah B. Mantell’s new play “Everything That Never Happened,” a world premiere production at the Boston Court Pasadena, seeks to right the wrongs Shakespeare wrought. 

Focusing on four “Merchant” characters: Shylock, his daughter Jessica, her lover Lorenzo and the servant Gobbo, the play “treats them as if they were real, three-dimensional human beings, not stereotypes,” director Jessica Kubzansky told the Journal during a break in rehearsal. “What I love about this play is that the characters [are] real people, with rich, complex desires.”

A self-described “Shakespeare freak,” Kubzansky loves the Bard and has often directed his plays. “I worked on ‘The Merchant of Venice’ a few times in a workshop, struggling how to make it make sense for me as a Jewish person, as a human, as a woman. There’s plenty of misogyny as well as anti-Semitism in the play,” she said. “Every time, I bumped up against things that I couldn’t reconcile, so I said no. But this play is richly beautiful and complex and full of love, and that’s redemption from the Shakespeare [that] was just about punishing and

Kubzansky compared the revisionist characters to those in the original. In “Merchant,” “Shylock is a vengeance-focused Jew with no human quality. In this play, he’s a beautifully human man with passion and pain and vulnerability,” she said.

Shakespeare’s Jessica “hates her father, she spends money profligately, she uncaringly climbs out the window and goes away with Lorenzo. She has no difficulty with the choices she made,” Kubzansky continued. “In this play, she loves her father and is very aware of the cost of leaving your religion and culture” to marry a Christian man. “It’s complicated and painful.”

This resonated with Kubzansky, because her sister married out of the Jewish faith, much to the dismay of their parents. “It was a big, hairy deal in my family. It’s all resolved but there was a time when it was very, very difficult,” she said.

“This play is richly beautiful and complex and full of love, and that’s redemption from the Shakespeare [that] was just about punishing and stereotypes.” — Jessica Kubzansky

Shylock is portrayed by Leo Marks, who has a Jewish father but wasn’t raised in the faith. He said he’s been thinking more about his Ashkenazi heritage as a result of doing the play. “I’ve been reading this great book called ‘Shakespeare and the Jews.’ ”

Marks said “The Merchant of Venice” “has a lot to answer for, and [“Everything That Never Happened”] takes it to task in a really smart, fierce but also funny, deeply human, thoughtful way,” he said. 

“This play imagines Shylock as a deeply loving father. He’s making his way in a world that’s not easy for him and he’s faced with really tough choices,” Marks said. “He’s not this otherworldly creature who wants revenge. He’s humanized. [Mantell] is saying, ‘Why do we accept these stories about Jews and let them define us? Why not tell our own stories?’ And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Kubzansky called the play “as poetic as Shakespeare in its own way. It’s really funny, until we punch you in the gut.” 

She imagines that if Shakespeare did a rewrite today, “he’d write it like this. He was a product of his time and he was writing to the stereotypes. This play completely reframes the story, and shows how beautiful, funny and painful it is to
be human.”

“Everything That Never Happened” runs through Nov. 4 at the Boston Court Pasadena.