'Ours is clearly an educational project, and not the version people usually think about.'
For its first three years, Orange Coast College's annual Shakespeare productions stirred nary a ripple of controversy.
But then, "All's Well That Ends Well," "Henry IV--Part I" and, especially, last year's production of "Hamlet" are more likely to produce scholarly debates than societal clashes.
So why would OCC's theater department take on "The Merchant of Venice," which has been repeatedly attacked by some Jewish groups nationwide as a work that perpetuates anti-Semitism in the person of Shakespeare's villainous Jewish moneylender, Shylock?
William Purkiss, the OCC theater arts professor who is staging the play, said his intent is to present a play with "educational, humanistic values that seek to expose anti-Semitism, not to condone it."
"Both Shakespeare and Shylock have gotten a bad rap all these centuries. Shylock is an innocent man, caught in the majority power structure," said Purkiss. "I don't believe Shakespeare wrote an anti-Semitic play, and I believe that Shylock is written to be a very human person who is, in fact, tormented and exploited."
Opening tonight for a two-weekend run at OCC's 190-seat Drama LabCQ Theater, "The Merchant of Venice" is again the focus of renewed concern from some Jewish community groups.
The Jewish Federation of Orange County, the American Jewish Committee/Orange County Chapter and the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies have provided reference materials to OCC but say they are taking a wait-and-see attitude about the actual production.
Chelle Friedman of the Jewish Federation said Purkiss' approach is "a commendable, and a sensitive, one. . . . We hope he can pull it off."
Said Steven Edelman of the Orange County office of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith: "It (Purkiss' approach) has a validity about it. But we can't really comment now--not until we've seen the actual performance."
Purkiss said he hopes that the play will generate classroom discussions about anti-Semitism.
In the play, Shylock, a rich but outcast moneylender, has struck a bargain with the young Venetian merchant, Antonio. If Antonio can't repay his loan, Shylock is entitled to a "pound of flesh" from the merchant--an act depicted as monstrous at the famous trial sequence.
Because of what they regard as the discriminatory portrayal of Shylock, Jewish groups have long criticized productions of "The Merchant of Venice," including versions at South Coast Repertory in 1981 and at Cypress College early last year.
"We got maybe 10 letters and several phone calls (protesting the play), as well as contacts with the major (Jewish) groups," recalled David Emmes, SCR's producing artistic director.
"But we have always felt that while the play deals with anti-Semitism, it is not itself anti-Semitic. This is especially true when it's done as an examination of the whole issue of discrimination--not only to Jews, but to all people who are seen as different."
Purkiss said he has received several phone calls of protests from individuals.
Rabbi Mark S. Miller of Temple Beth Yahm in Newport Beach, has made his protest public. He doesn't believe the play should be staged at all. It is, he argues, "an overwhelmingly unflattering stereotype of a Jewish man, who is made to appear as representative of an entire people."
According to Purkiss, one of the student actors, who is Jewish, has dropped out of OCC's 30-member cast because the student feared the play was anti-Semitic.
"It's understandable that people still feel this way. But frankly, the reactions, I don't think, have been as strong as you might expect," Purkiss said.
This is due, he contended, "because they understand ours is clearly an educational project and not the version people usually think about when it comes to Shylock."
OCC started its annual Shakespeare program with high school audiences in mind. This year's three-week session is expected to draw hundreds of teen-age students to the Drama Lab performances--four of them already are sold out to classes from Estancia, Fountain Valley, Corona del Mar and Costa Mesa high schools.
Study guides on the play and the discrimination issue already have been sent to the high school students who will view the play, and there will be follow-up "rap sessions" with educators and community representatives, said Purkiss. The guides include comments from Rabbi Miller and David Schuster, the OCC faculty member who is playing Shylock and who in his interpretation will try to emphasize the character's humaneness.
"We're reaching a whole new generation who are too young to remember World War II, the concentration camps and the earlier civil rights movements," said Purkiss, who also is providing a taped introduction at each performance.
"We chose to do 'Merchant' because our culture is laced with a benign acceptance of racism and discrimination today--a more permissive attitude toward certain jokes, taunts and even graffiti."
"The play's really about the dominant power structure, and how it steps on the minorities, be they Asian, black, Latino or Jewish, and the vicious stereotypes that flourished not only in Shakespeare's day but in ours."
"The Merchant of Venice" will be presented at 8 p.m. today, Friday and Saturday; at 8 p.m. on Nov. 12, 13, and 14; and on Sunday and Nov. 15 at 4 p.m. General admission is $5 in advance, or $6 at the door. Call (714) 432-5880 for ticket information.