THE MERCHANT OF VENICE by William Shakespeare, directed by Sanjay Talwar, with Jani Lauzon, Carly Street, Richard Alan Campbell and Richard Harte. Presented by Shakespeare in the Rough at Withrow Park (Danforth and Logan). Previews begin today (Thursday, July 21), opens Saturday (July 23) and runs to September 5, Wednesday-Saturday 7 pm, matinees Sunday and holiday Monday 2 pm. Pwyc ($15 suggested). 647-438-6742. firstname.lastname@example.org Rating: NNNNN
You've heard of the elephant in the living room - the topic that people are uncomfortably aware of but won't talk about?
Sanjay Talwar thinks that The Merchant Of Venice is the elephant in Shakespeare's canon. It's the play, he argues, that audiences are most uncomfortable with because of the anti-Semitism that many see in it.
If they discuss it at all, they usually condemn it for the depiction of Shylock, the Jewish money lender who makes a bargain with Antonio, the Venetian merchant of the title, and then demands a pound of Antonio's flesh when the bond can't be paid according to the agreement.
Talwar, artistic co-director of Shakespeare in the Rough, who's helming the piece, has already had e-mails asking him why he's doing it.
"It took me a while to get inside the play, to see both sides of every argument in a play that looks at both Jews and Christians. I understand why people have labelled it as they have.
"But I look at it and see a very human story with racist elements. Does that sound familiar to today's audiences? What about a society that puts money before everything else? What about people fighting to survive and break free from the constraints of the society in which they live? All of these questions resonate for Torontonians, and they're all asked in the context of a good piece of storytelling."
One of the most striking aspects of Talwar's production is the casting of native performer Jani Lauzon as Shylock. Shakespeare in the Rough has always gender-balanced its acting company and assigned roles in a non-traditional way, all the while casting the best performer in each role.
Activist, singer and actor Lauzon, a member of the Turtle Gals, is aware of the difficulty that actors of colour encounter when they audition for one of the Bard's plays. It's even fed her desire to play Shylock.
"Because of my anti-racist beliefs and work and my position as a native person," she offers, "I'm intrigued to slip into the mind and world of Shylock and try - in the context of this production - to crack those hard nuts."
Strikingly, her Shylock is a woman. That choice gives an extra twist to the narrative, especially in the connection between Shylock and Shylock's daughter Jessica, who deserts her parent to run off with Lorenzo, a Christian and, more importantly in this version, an "other."
"The bond between mother and daughter has a different quality than that between father and daughter," continues the actor. "Native culture is matrilineal, and I can draw on that context here. A mother wants to pass to her daughter a sense of identity and strength.
"In this production, Shylock tries to do that. Where she fails is in teaching her daughter any life skills. The mother is too wrapped up in protecting Jessica from the world, and the result is that her identity becomes a confinement instead of a freedom."
Lauzon also understands the tension that Shylock's under in the world of the play, though she herself wouldn't follow the character's lead.
"I'd attack with my fists in the air," she laughs during the early-morning interview in Withrow Park, where various groups do tai-chi in the distance and dogs wander around the two trees that mark the set.
"Shylock takes a different tack, accepting the situation at some points and trying to manipulate it at others."
Just as the casting of Lauzon will change the audience's expectations of the show, Talwar, directing his first Shakespeare, is further trying to change viewers' attitudes to the controversial play.
"We're consciously trying not to put a stereotype on any person or group in the production, not use any traditional iconography of Judaism or Christianity. Rather than an us-and-them energy from the beginning, I want people to see two 'thems,' both at a distance from the audience.
"What I hope to present, broadly, is what can happen to a minority in a majority culture. The audience for this show, given the makeup of our city, is conceptually more important than my setting it in a specific time and place; in fact, the setting is noticeably anachronistic.
"We're intentionally throwing viewers a curve ball right off the top."