Two theatre works 400 years apart shock with effects of anti-Semitism
left to right, Willow Geer, Peter Magnus Curry, Tavis L. Baker, Tim Halligan and Alan Blumenfeld / Ian Flanders

LOS ANGELES—Some days it seems like the old prejudices—we could easily name a dozen offhand—will never die away. All the well-intentioned groups have been working for decades, yet poisonous bigotry still pollutes modern life at every turn. Hate crimes are up, while worldwide, agencies of religion, media and the state continue to inhibit gender, ethnic, racial, national and other forms of equality.

Two successive nights of theatergoing, two Jews lynched, one by law, the other by rope: William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1597) and the American musical Parade (1998), book by Alfred Uhry, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, which takes us back to Atlanta, Ga., in 1913, when Leo Frank, a Brooklyn-raised Jew making his life with his new Southern-born wife Lucille, was put on trial for the murder of a 13-year-old girl.

Merchant is part of the Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum summer season of five plays under the rubric “Rising Up.” Ellen Geer, daughter of Will and Merchant’s director, says it points up a “lack of caring about humanity—it puts it right in front of your face—…perfect for now because it mirrors our own society a bit.”

“I am most interested in exploring Parade as an intimate and exposed platform that reveals the most raw and universal truths of a community,” says director Kari Hayter of Chance Theater in Orange County, Calif., “in order to remind us of our responsibilities today to demonstrate love, tolerance, and acceptance.”

The Merchant of Venice is considered both a comic tragedy and a tragic comedy (for it ends with a trio of marriages and the thorough humiliation of the Jew), a forerunner of the “dark” and “jet black” comedies in theaters today. Against a long history of denigration on the public Venetian Rialto which the yellow-badged Shylock has endured for years, he upholds his dignity by tossing off a “merry prank,” absurdly demanding a pound of flesh from the borrower Antonio, one of his chief tormentors, if the debt goes unpaid in three months’ time. No one ever imagined the bond would in fact come due.

In his courtroom defense, Shylock insists on punctilious adherence to the law of contracts, about the only sure thing he as a Jewish alien can depend on. Answering the court’s appeal for him to show mercy, Shylock throws the idea back in society’s face. He summons up the foundational story of the Jewish nation, its liberation from hateful slavery:

What judgement shall I dread, doing no wrong?
You have among you many a purchased slave,
Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules,
You use in abject and in slavish parts,
Because you bought them: shall I say to you,
Let them be free, marry them to your heirs?
Why sweat they under burthens? let their beds
Be made as soft as ours, and let their palates
Be season’d with such viands? You will answer
‘The slaves are ours:’ so do I answer you:
The pound of flesh, which I demand of him,
Is dearly bought; ’tis mine and I will have it.
If you deny me, fie upon your law!

The chutzpah—the gallof the court preaching mercy when Venice is so profoundly corrupt and cruel! Even Portia’s (Willow Geer) famous “The quality of mercy is not strain’d” speech is maliciously delivered by a duplicitous masqueraded character (Portia in the disguise of a distinguished lawyer) who has no mercy whatsoever for Shylock but expects him to forfeit his bond with magnanimity. One law for Christians, another for Jews. The actor who plays Shylock, the magisterial Alan Blumenfeld, was quoted in the local Jewish Journal, saying that his character endured what is going on today, “Christians” yanking the hijab off of Muslim women’s heads, the skullcaps off of Jews, and turbans off of Sikhs.

Comedy often entails taking the oppressor down a notch and lifting the oppressed, a social leveling that affirms our common humanity; but such is not Merchant’s agenda—no, the oppressed get a few final kicks before the curtain descends. A viewer is hard-pressed to identify any character in this play who fits into a neat box of “good guy” or “bad guy.”

Perhaps old Will is simply trying to tell us we are all flawed human beings, most of us blind to our own prejudices—himself included, for dramaturgs argue to this day whether the playwright was ultimately trying to portray Shylock sympathetically or if he was simply reflecting the ignorance, intolerance and a shrewd business sense of his own time. The Merchant of Venice dates from 1597. Was his play a rejoinder to Christopher Marlowe’s immensely popular and highly inflammatory The Jew of Malta (1589), or was he merely capitalizing on the surefire success of demonizing the Jew? In 1594 a crypto-Jewish physician, Roderigo Lopez, was tortured and executed, implicated in a plot to kill Queen Elizabeth. In the anti-Jewish frenzy surrounding the case, The Jew of Malta was immediately revived to great acclaim.

In this staging, although Shylock does say, “I am content” when he loses his case and is severely punished, even forced to become a Christian, he is later seen donning a Jewish prayer shawl and reciting Hebrew prayers, obviously remaining a Jew in secret. Vigilantes snatch him away to an uncertain fate.

It’s not a coincidence that the titular merchant has investments and commerce with Lisbon, Barbary, India, the (West) Indies, Mexico, in other words, in that post-1492 era of European expansion through colonialism and mercantilism. They times they were a-changing, and it’s always convenient to haul out the ancient hatreds, shine them up for re-use, and take the people’s minds off the upset to the old order.

Atlanta, Georgia, 1913

And that’s kind of what happened to poor Leo Frank (Allen Everman). Atlanta had become an industrial-based town, far removed in its ethos from the agrarian past. Farmers moved into the city for work in factories, such as young Mary Phagan (Gabrielle Adner), a 13-year-old pencil factory worker earning 10 cents an hour. The populace are still drenched in Civil War glory, hatred of Northern Yankees, resentment of change, loyal to their nostalgic memories of “The Old Red Hills of Home,” the opening chorus of Parade.

When Mary is found dead in the factory basement, the mousy, meticulous Jewish factory manager Leo Frank finds himself preposterously accused of murder. The double Tony Award-winning Parade (Best Book and Best Score) is based on a true historical incident, which gave rise to the Anti-Defamation League, so outrageous was the miscarriage of justice in the urgency to find a scapegoat.

Parade highlights the role of yellow journalism, the sensationalistic ginning up of popular sentiment even as it ignores the truth. Newspapers catered to fear and insecurity. Georgia Governor John Slaton (Tucker Boyes) finally begins to entertain doubts about the obviously coerced testimony in the trial and is voted out of office. Populist rabble rouser Tom Watson (Ryan Lloyd) forms an opportunistic alliance with the prosecutor Hugh Dorsey (Chris Kerrigan), who later becomes governor himself. Although spared his life by the governor, Frank was sent to a state farm, whence he was abducted and lynched, one Jew among the over 450 lynchings in Georgia alone between 1882 and 1930, almost all of them Black.

The response of the Black community, as depicted in the musical, was understandably skeptical. What if a little black girl had been killed? How could Shakespeare’s Venetians be so upset about Antonio while the slaveowners among them treat their property so abjectly?

Anaheim’s Chance Theater gave this show a stunning, innovative production (scenic design by Fred Kinney) on bare wooden planks in a staging involving little more than tables and chairs in constant motion. Costuming by Elizabeth Cox brought out the class disparities of a deeply racist society given to populist appeals against outsiders who besmirch our Southern womanhood. Confederate flags are prominently waving.

It has become one of the great American social commentary musicals, a powerful story not just of prejudice and discrimination, but also of feminist emergence as Leo’s wife Lucille (Erica Schaeffer) rises to her husband’s defense, even as he tried to discourage her from asserting herself so visibly (typical man’s “I can handle this” pride).

The singing and acting are completely engaging, proving, as many companies are coming around to appreciate today, that glitz and lots of stage furniture do not necessarily a musical make. The emphasis is purely on the fine performances by a cast of 18. An unseen orchestra of six players directed by keyboardist Robyn Manion is highly effective, and the choral singing is a strong contribution. The inspired score sheds a bright though tragic light on a dark corner of history with all too much contemporary meaning.

Parade will be performed through July 30 on Thurs. at 7:30 pm, Fri. at 8 pm, Sat. at 3 and 8 pm, and Sun. at 3 pm. There is one additional special performance on Wed., July 12 at 7:30 pm. The Cripe Stage at the Chance Theater at the Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center is located at 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim CA 92807. For tickets and other information, call (888) 455-4212 or visit www.ChanceTheater.com. Discounts are available for seniors, students and military.

Future performances of The Merchant of Venice will take place on July 15 at 3:30, Aug. 6 at 3:30, Aug. 12 at 7:30, Aug. 19 at 3:30, Aug. 27 at 3:30, Sept. 2 at 3:30, Sept. 10 at 3:30, Sept. 17 at 7:30, Sept. 23 at 3:30, and Oct. 1 at 3:30 pm. Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum is located at 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga 90290 (midway between Pacific Coast Highway and the Ventura [101] freeway). Their website can be viewed here.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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