Ashland 4: the quality of mercy, the surprise of love

Antonio (Jonathan Haugen, left), Shylock (Anthony Heald, center) and Bassanio (Danforth Comins) discuss the terms of Antonio's bond. Photo by Jenny Graham.

By Bob Hicks

Art Scatter’s ramble through the Oregon Shakespeare Festival‘s 75th anniversary season is closer to its end than its beginning, and it strikes us once again how much this thicket of theater interconnects. A lot of that has to do with the nature of rotating repertory, which gives audiences the chance to see the same actors in a variety of roles and a variety of plays.

Amali Balash (Lisa McCormick) shows off her new dress for her first date with her anonymous pen pal. Photo by Jenny Graham.Brooke Parks and Christian Barillas, for instance, who play sister and brother Viola and Sebastian in Twelfth Night, return as sister and brother Caroline and Charles Bingley in Pride and Prejudice. Lisa McCormick, who calculates her future so carefully as the practical Charlotte Lewis in P&P, stumbles headstrong into love as the shopgirl heroine in She Loves Me. Dawn-Lyen Gardner, survivor of rape and warfare in Ruined, becomes a lucky lady-in-waiting in The Merchant of Venice. One way or another, love is in the air all over these plays. And couldn’t Merchant almost have been titled Pride and Prejudice?

Sometimes the connecting game is tougher. What could the troubling and abrasive Merchant of Venice and the little musical gem She Loves Me have in common? Not a lot, unless you consider that the source material for She Loves Me (and for the movies Shop Around the Corner, In the Good Old Summertime and You’ve Got Mail) is the Hungarian play Parfumerie by Miklos Laszlo, and then go a step further to remember that the Hungary of 1937, the year that Laszlo wrote his little bubble of innocence, held little truck with Jews and would as soon have done without them — a desire that was in the process of being satisfied.

Well, it’s a stretch. And really, the light-spirited She Loves Me has nothing to do with the politics and prejudices of Shakespeare’s imagined Venice. But it’s good to remember that both plays have a cultural context, and that both are very much products of their own places and times.

It’s especially good to remember that about Merchant, an always controversial drama that has become especially problematic in our post-Holocaust times. The play was meant as a comedy, with its happy pairings of couples and the merchant Antonio’s replenishment after all had seemed lost. But how do we laugh with these good people, so casually abusive toward Shylock and Jews in general? And how do we ignore the testimony of Shylock, the usurer who is wronged and who demands, with justification if not mercy, his pound of flesh? It’s surprising how relatively brief Shylock’s appearances in the play are, given that history and the power of his personality have wrenched the drama emphatically in his direction.

These days Merchant is often played as a satire on the smug hypocrisy of a dominant Christian culture, which preaches love and practices hate. It’s seen as Shakespeare’s stout defense for the essential humanity of the “other,” or alternatively, as an example of his tendency to isolate and dehumanize the outsider (after all, wasn’t the island Caliban’s before Prospero butted in?). The line that many of us have used is that Shakespeare was such a great artist that he transcended the prejudices of his times: In creating Shylock, he created a lasting argument that defeats his ordinary Elizabethan inclinations.

There is truth in all of that, but as director Bill Rauch’s admirably straightforward Ashland production underscores, the whole truth is more complicated. Yes, the play argues for the dignity of Shylock and, at least through our backward-looking telescope, lays blame on the virtuous Christians. But the underlying worldview of Merchant — the play’s moral compass — is its belief in the validity of the Christian view of the crucial difference between Judaism and Christianity. Judaism, this view declares, is a religion of the law. Christianity is a religion of grace. The law is crime and punishment. Grace is forgiveness and reform. The quality of mercy may not be strained, but it’s demanding, and sometimes it must hurt. So in the courtroom, when Portia beats Shylock at his own game, pushing legality to its extreme logical conclusion, she’s not rubbing anything in, she’s pointing out to him the “error” of his ways. The Jewish law is good but not sufficient. It must be tempered by Christian grace. The demand that Shylock convert to Christianity, then, isn’t rubbing his defeat in his face, it’s lending him a helping hand. For his own good — nay, for his salvation — he must join the Christians in a state of grace. It’s the missionary sentiment in action, and it knows what’s good for the rest of the world. Tell me again: Why are we in Iraq?

In this, Shakespeare was in accord with his place and times — except that, in creating Shylock, he also created a potent and enduring counterargument. A firm belief in a particular moral point of view can slip easily into an equally firm belief that other world views are immoral, which can slip once more into the firm belief that outsiders are infidels, unequals, unclean, to be shunned or even eliminated. And what should the object of these prejudices and abuses think? It’s not that hard to see in Shylock a kind of brotherhood with today’s Muslim world. From the West, we create revolutionaries in the East.

This is extremely uncomfortable territory, which along with the quality of the drama and language is the best reason to revisit it. The Merchant of Venice is a prickly reminder of the possibilities of evil contained in the supposition of good. The world, like the human soul, is a complex and disturbing place. Rauch’s production simply lays it all out, without hiding from its implications or attempting to skew the play. The actors do the rest, although sometimes it must be difficult, tossing out casual slurs and embodying small-mindedness. Anthony Heald as Shylock, Jonathan Haugen as Antonio, Vilma Silva as Portia, Gregory Linington as wild-haired and venom-spouting Gratiano — the actors give the characters their best and lets the chips fall.

Where do they fall? Ask not. They fall for us.


One of the festival’s strong suits is its fondness for reviving good but semi-forgotten theater pieces from the past, and with this year’s She Loves Me it’s surpassed itself. If the season didn’t have to end, this production no doubt would roll on and on, drawing happy crowds and eliciting rave reviews. Like the best of American musicals — the likes of South Pacific, Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, Oklahoma! — it combines intelligence and wit with broad popular appeal. Director Rebecca Taichman’s production in Ashland is one of those rare and happy theatrical enterprises that picks you up from its first note and doesn’t set you down again until the last.

A surprise Broadway hit in 1963, She Loves Me is both small in scope and broad in its particulars: It makes every moment count. With a book by Joe Masteroff (Cabaret) and music and lyrics respectively by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, who would go on as a team to create Fiddler on the Roof, the play is a nearly seamless wedding of words and music. Its melodious score recalls the warmth of Viennese operetta, and in its submission to the forward necessities of the drama it follows the lead of Showboat and Oklahoma!

This is the love story of pen pals who have never met but fall in love through their letters, never realizing that they work in the same shop and don’t get along very well at all. There’s a hint here of the Shakespearean penchant for mistaken identities, which always must be sorted out before the characters can discover their true selves. The brash and wonderful Lisa McCormick as Amalia Balash and Mark Bedard (a gifted comedian who also plays the flippant Gobbo in Merchant) as introverted Georg Nowack lead a sparkling cast of singing actors. Taichman gives the show time to play around — the little extensions, double-takes and sight gags, such as Eddie Lopez’s hilarious bumbling busboy ballet, that plump up a musical comedy like yeast enlivening dough — and the actors take full advantage of it. With the show’s wittily shifting set pieces and confectionery costumes, it’s also a delight to see.

Rauch is obviously a devotee of musical theater, and since he took over as artistic director the company has eagerly pursued the tradition. Last season brought The Music Man. This season, She Loves Me. Next season moves on to British operetta and Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. This ongoing commitment to musical theater could have a distinct impact on the makeup of the acting company, adding to the list of qualifications for at least some slots professional adeptness with song and dance. This is a good thing. As the festival goes, it grows.


PHOTOS, from top:

  • Antonio (Jonathan Haugen, left), Shylock (Anthony Heald, center) and Bassanio (Danforth Comins) discuss the terms of Antonio’s bond in “The Merchant of Venice.” Photo: Jenny Graham.
  • Amalia Balash (Lisa McCormick) shows off her new dress for her first date with her anonymous pen pal in “She Loves Me.” Photo: Jenny Graham.