Tina Packer's production of The Merchant of Venice, played in the round with minimal staging and more or less period costumes, drops us in the middle of a frontier society where all kinds of identities are jostling for space. It opens on a masked revelers' dance party (anachronistically Bruno Mars), which gradually breaks up until a handful of diehards pass out in place. The arrival of morning is marked by a muezzin, and small groups of people -- a couple of Muslims, some Jews, a pair of Christian monks -- pass by the heap of last night's partiers, looking askance but going on about their business, and we realize it's the Rialto. The Merchant Antonio wakes, and admits he is sad, and we are off.
The Merchant (John Hadden) has a thing with that boy Bassanio (Shahar Isaac), but that boy Bassanio is moving on, there's an opportunity in Belmont, a lady with a fortune, and well, you know, those kinds of gentlemen's agreements were never meant to last, not in a city with profit at its heart. Packer's Shakespearean Venice is not the mythical melting pot of a dominant mercantile city, but a vast and intricate network of social and ethnic tensions, where religion, class, gender, race, and sexuality form constantly shifting fields of conflict. Antonio, who has famously spat upon Jews, has the spit of others to contend with himself, and he's losing the love of his life to a woman whose own future is bound by a capricious patriarchal game.
But in spite of the fact that the Merchant owns the title, this play is not about him. One of the choices an actor playing Shylock has to make is how to place him in or against the society with which he comes into conflict, and accent is often a big part of the role. Jonathan Epstein's Shylock is unaccented -- or rather, in a sea of accents, he speaks in the same accent Antonio does -- and it makes the character matter-of-fact and believable, erasing lines that would make him a single Other representative of a community of Others. One of the points of this Shylock is he is his own man, and his actions are his own, and the adamant position he takes vis a vis the bond is his own.
It also gives the sense that when Shylock expresses his anxiety in terms of loss of property, that that's a social script he's fallen to using because it's required and expected. Epstein's Shylock is profoundly weary of that game, a thin pretense that's tossed away in the famous line about the stolen ring -- "I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor" -- in the same way he'll toss away his kippah and tallit katan in the face of "Balthazar"'s reading of the Law (presented in this production as much a vengeful doubling down as Shylock's own).
It's the heart that counts, and one of the finer aspects of this production is the way in which people are surprised by the moral failings of themselves and others. In the trial scene, as Tubal declares his dismay at Shylock's unbending will, so the maid Nerissa (Bella Merlin) registers a growing shock at her mistress Portia's (Tamara Hickey) equally exacting cruelty. Likewise Jessica (Kate Abbruzzese) realizes that Lorenzo (Deaon Griffin-Pressley) is not the man she took him for, as he takes to verbally and then physically abusing the servant Lancelot (Thomas Brazzle), once (possibly still) her only friend. In fact this dynamic is one of the most interesting in the production, as both Lorenzo and Lancelot are played by black actors. So Lancelot, master of authority-challenging satire, enraged by Lorenzo but constrained by class, makes his final entrance into their presence literally shouting Dixie. Lorenzo comes out of that encounter looking shell-shocked, so perhaps there's hope for him. But after news of the trial comes to Belmont, Jessica is clearly wondering if the world she's escaped into will turn out infinitely worse than the one she had before: herself, her father, and her friend as yet undefeated by this brave new world that has such people in it.