A dif­fi­cult play for dif­fi­cult times

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - GARY SMITH Gary Smith has writ­ten on theatre and dance for The Hamil­ton Spec­ta­tor for more than 35 years.

There are no easy an­swers. Not with Shake­speare’s prob­lem play. “The Mer­chant of Venice” not only re­quires dra­matic in­sight, it de­mands the­atri­cal guts.

When the per­se­cuted Jew Shy­lock de­mands his pound of flesh in pay­ment for a debt he is owed by the Chris­tian An­to­nio we are shocked. Fair enough. But shouldn’t we be equally outraged at the way Shy­lock is so cru­elly treated by his Chris­tian neigh­bours? Why should they be­lieve he ought to re­nounce his faith in favour of theirs?

No won­der Shake­speare’s play has mes­sages for to­day.

Do­ing the play now de­mands noth­ing less than a straight ahead ap­proach that never weak­ens matters by soft­en­ing the play’s dis­qui­et­ing anti-Semitism. At the same time Shy­lock must not be por­trayed as sim­ply a vic­tim of big­otry, but as a man who is venge­ful and un­re­pen­tant. What’s needed, of course, is balance. Alma Sarai and Chris Reid, ac­tors tack­ling the com­plex­i­ties of Shake­speare’s trou­ble­some play, are mind­ful of this as they work through fi­nal re­hearsals to find the truth in the piece.

“This is my first Shake­spearean role,” Reid says. A 48-year-old Mis­sis­sauga kin­der­garten teacher, he feels play­ing this role he’s “at the base of Mount Ever­est look­ing up.”

“With Shy­lock it’s pos­si­ble to have so many di­verse opin­ions. In the end you have to get in­side the man and sim­ply forge ahead.

“The play is a comedy,” Reid says, “Though peo­ple find much dark­ness in it.”

“With Shy­lock, Shake­speare was writ­ing a stock vil­lain. Did he in­tend anti-Semitism to creep in? Per­haps. The point is we are watch­ing the play through a 21st cen­tury lens. That makes a dif­fer­ence. Some pro­duc­tions have tried to soften the is­sues and make Shy­lock more sym­pa­thetic. When you do that the play be­comes in­au­then­tic. I want there to be a level of em­pa­thy for him and the way he feels per­se­cuted in the world. I want the au­di­ence to feel his pain. That’s es­sen­tial. But then there is an as­pect of re­venge here, too. Shy­lock can’t pull back from ex­act­ing the pound of flesh An­to­nio owes him. And that’s an is­sue.”

Alma Sarai, 25, who plays Por­tia, agrees, “The play might be of­fen­sive to peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly in con­text with the Sec­ond World War and Nazi per­se­cu­tion of the Jews.”

“Soft­en­ing any­thing here, how­ever, es­pe­cially the lan­guage, could cause the play to det­o­nate. There are things here I don’t agree with. Things about the play and about Por­tia, the char­ac­ter I play. And, yes, anti-Semitism is there. But the play is about more than that. I don’t think Shy­lock is mon­strous, for in­stance. I think things just go too far. It’s cir­cum­stances,” Sarai says.

“For me Por­tia is a res­cuer. She is a wo­man who has left her her­itage and des­tiny. Things are a game to her, un­til they’re taken too far.”

Both ac­tors says they find the play res­onates with ideas that are dis­turb­ing and chal­leng­ing.

“I like putting my­self out of my com­fort zone, tak­ing risks,” Reid says. “I never wanted to be a pro­fes­sional ac­tor. I like the feel­ing of be­ing part of a com­mu­nity group.”

A kin­der­garten teacher at El­len­gale Public School in Mis­sis­sauga, Reid is mar­ried with three chil­dren. He loves teach­ing.

Spend­ing days with 20 kids is about watch­ing them dis­cover new things ev­ery minute. “It’s so ful­fill­ing,” he says.

Sarai, on the other hand, re­mains hope­ful she may be­come a pro­fes­sional ac­tress. She took dance lessons at age three, joined a choir a few years later and in 2006 went to Lou Zam­progna’s Theatre Aquar­ius Sum­mer School where she played Val in “A Cho­rus Line” in 2006.

“For me it’s do­ing some­thing for some­body else that ul­ti­mately does some­thing for you. That gives me joy. I’m in love with the arts com­mu­nity in this area. I try not to close my­self off to any­thing.”

Reid says, “‘The Mer­chant of Venice’ is about re­bel­lion, re­venge and money. My job is to make Shy­lock be­liev­able in all this. He’s been driven to a cer­tain place and I need to re­veal the in­ner mono­logue that makes us un­der­stand who he is and why he’s there.”

Tot­ter­ing Biped’s pro­duc­tion of Shake­speare’s play will be per­formed out­doors at The Rock gar­dens at the Royal Botan­i­cal Gar­dens.

“That brings in a whole new di­men­sion,” Sarai says. “So much im­agery in the play comes from na­ture. In this pro­duc­tion we are in the mid­dle of it. It’s amaz­ing. You watch the sun go down. You feel time pass­ing, nat­u­rally and fig­u­ra­tively. It makes you re­al­ize how small you are, even though on stage you some­how be­come big­ger.”

The down­side to out­door theatre? “Well, there’s the heat,” Sarai says. “And the bugs. I guess those things are just part of the show though.”

CLAU­DIA SPADAFORA

Chris Reid as Shy­lock and Alma Sarai as Por­tia in “The Mer­chant of Venice.”

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