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THEATER REVIEW : 'Merchant of Venice' Beach? Peter Sellars Strikes Again

October 12, 1994|MARK SWED | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CHICAGO — Peter Sellars has come to Chicago, and with him, as usual, is controversy.

A local gossip columnist, for instance, gasped last week during previews of Sellars' new production of "Merchant of Venice" that the director, utilizing Shakespeare's text uncut, had originally started out with a seven-hour show. Further reports indicated that preview audiences were fleeing in dramatic numbers during the single intermission, leaving the Goodman Theatre half full.

What's the aging enfant terrible of theater, as the local critics have taken to calling the 36-year-old Sellars, done this time?

In short, he has cast Shylock as a black capitalist; Portia and her court are Asian; the Venetians, Latino. Venice--have you guessed?--is Venice Beach . Sellars contends that the racial, sexual and economic tensions of Shakespeare's world haven't gone away.

Monday night's performance did last a full four hours, and, yes, some in the opening-night audience left. But most stayed and stood, at the end, for an astonished ovation. Seldom is theater so profound.

Sellars has emphasized in interviews that the starting point for his production was Shakespeare's astute analysis of the economic roots of racism. But the revolutionary aspect of this production is not the points it makes--they're obvious--but the questions it asks. And those questions have much more to do with language than they do with economics.

What Sellars asks is, what do we hear when we hear Shakespeare's language, not through historical ears, but through our own ears, spoken in our own accents? From that comes the unexpected insights into how we communicate in a multicultural world, what exactly we are saying and how are we saying it--or more important, not saying it--to each other.

Sellars' Shakespeare is spoken in the rhythms and accents of Latin street slang; couplets are intoned in the singsong manner of rap. Shylock's lines have all the chilly resonance of a middle-level loan officer from hell. All of Shakespeare's text is included, but not all is heard. Actors swallow lines, emphasize words in their own ways, amplification plays its own intentional havoc on lines as they come and go. Some lines are spoken simultaneously, whispered inaudibly.

The result is a familiar play changed and surprising. It is, in fact, changed almost as much as if it had become an opera, with nearly every line heard in a different context and inflection than it ever has been before. In fact, Sellars, who has radicalized opera production by bringing uncompromising theater onto the lyric stage, seems to have come full circle.

When Antonio (Gino Silva), a wealthy gay Latino merchant says he loves Bassanio, he means it literally, and there is nothing even faintly amusing about his entering into an outrageous loan agreement with Shylock--a scene that will bring chills to the spine of anyone who has ever applied for a mortgage.

Bassanio (John Ortiz)--a guileless street kid who speaks his lines with an ambiguous, cocky flatness, occasionally exploding in uncomprehending rages--tries to play Antonio's affection and that of the wealthy Portia (Elaine Tse), a wealthy Bel-Air Asian who has difficulty trusting, off against each other, and finds himself emotionally way over his head. Shylock (magnificently played by Paul Butler) has probably never seemed more menacing than he does trying to maintain a businesslike cool, while emotions are clearly raging inside. On some level, in fact, every character in the play is jiving, and much of the emotional power of the production comes from the fact that we never know just how deep the insecurities lie.

It is not just Shakespeare's words, however, but also visual signals, that make communication at best ambiguous, and Sellars has created a sophisticated visual production as well. No set designer is credited--the stage utilizes pieces of cold, modern office furniture against a stark white cyclorama, strikingly lit by James F. Ingalls.

But there are video monitors--five on stage, four more throughout the theater--that regularly display cinema verite film and video clips of Venice Beach, of Portia's Bel-Air estate. Characters also manipulate camcorders to provide documentary talking-head close-ups and reaction shots--Shylock is particularly threatening on camera; Portia's quality of mercy speech, especially heart-rending. But often, too, the video serves to further complicate; in exposing so much it makes one aware of how little is actually being seen.

Most of Sellars' allusions--his dangerous replacing of Shakespeare's controversial stereotypes with controversial modern ones--are, in fact, remarkably telling. Shylock is not a Jew, he is a black who is perceived as a Jew. And through him and the others in a production that turns a multiracial cast into a tight ensemble, we see just how deep our racism is, how troubled as a society we are. But we also, through hearing Shakespeare's language transformed into our own, get a cathartic glimpse at how rich we can be as well.

* "Merchant of Venice" continues at Chicago's Goodman Theatre through Nov. 5, then moves to London, Paris and Hamburg. Information: (312) 443-3800.

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