‘Shylock’ explores crucial questions at Tabard

By Ande Jacobson

Tabard Theatre, in partnership with Silicon Valley Shakespeare, is exploring several important questions through their current production of Shylock, a play by Mark Leiren-Young. The playwright deftly confronts several considerations surrounding the questions of how artistic works should be presented to a modern audience. On the one hand, should audiences be shielded from that which makes them uncomfortable when imbued with current cultural sensitivities, particularly for works from another time? Should they be spoon fed the intent of a given work, or should they be allowed to come to their own conclusions? More directly, the play uses the controversial character of Shylock and questions how he should be portrayed to a modern audience or even whether a company should mount a production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in the first place.

Leiren-Young’s play was originally published in Canada in 1996 with the second printing in 2001. The playwright provided the Tabard/Silicon Valley Shakespeare team with a 2017 revision of the script updating a few of the political and pop culture references used in this production. The premise of this one-man story is that an actor, Jon Davies (Doug Brook), who portrayed the character of Shylock in a festival production of The Merchant of Venice is addressing an audience during a talk-back.

This particular talk-back follows the closing performance of a run cut short due to public outrage over both the play and Davies’ portrayal of Shylock as the villain Shakespeare intended him to be. As the only member of the company attending the talk-back, he recounts to the audience the abuses he’s endured during the run from patrons who were offended by his portrayal. Davies makes it clear that he’s been severely affected by the vitriol directed at him personally, not during the performances when he fully expected to be booed as a villain should be, but in public. He recounts incidents of outraged patrons dressing him down away from the theater, being called a racist, and being spat upon. While he understands that the character has been difficult to play historically, he didn’t expect the outcry and controversy that the company and he personally had experienced throughout this run. He asserts that the point of art has to be to spark discussion and make people think about big issues through civil discourse. Isn’t it more important to have such difficult conversations rather than avoiding them?

With respect to art, Davies says:

“Maybe it is all dangerous. Galileo was dangerous. Moses was dangerous. Maybe Shakespeare is dangerous. Maybe that’s a chance we’ve got to take. Maybe that’s what art is. And maybe you don’t just do the play because it’s art. Just maybe you do it because it makes you talk about issues like this.”

Jonathan Rhys Williams’ direction is effective and powerful no matter whether one is watching live in the theater or streaming it online, and it makes the show very interesting to watch. Williams and Brook make an excellent team creating what could come across as a lecture instead transport the audience to the festival where Merchant just closed.

Kevin Davies’ scenic design follows a traditional setup for The Merchant of Venice. This includes colonnades supporting a series of archways gracing the upstage area; a single archway with a velvet curtain slightly downstage from the stage right colonnade; half bridges down right and down left connoting a Venetian canal running across the downstage area; a stone bench near the stage left bridge; and a dress form up center that is almost like another character as the performance develops. In addition, a dressing table is brought out and positioned center left early in the show and also gets heavy use.

Edward Hunter’s lighting design deftly helps make the distinction when Brook is playing the actor Davies vs. the actor playing his character, Shylock.

The remaining staff can be found in the online program.

Brook starts the show as Davies playing Shylock, fully costumed and made up as the Shakespearian villain and delivers a short, key Shylock soliloquy from Act III, Scene I of Merchant. After a pause, he delivers the memorable line, dripping with malice:

“The pound of flesh which I demand of him is dearly bought, ‘tis mine, and I will have it.”

Brook clearly has some fun with the opening, and then settles into his real character of Davies relating to the audience, and that pound of flesh comes back multiple times during the performance, each time punctuating a crucial point. Brook is very natural in the role of Jon Davies sharing swaths of common history with his character. He is able to draw upon some of his own study in understanding the material he’s imparting as Davies. For instance, in relating various tirades his character has endured, he shares a bit of Jewish history such as why a person like Shylock would be a money lender in the first place.

This one-man, 90 minute performance is a workout, and Brook’s presentation is riveting, educational, and thought provoking. If one doesn’t come out of the performance pondering the many questions posed, they weren’t paying attention.

After the end of the performance as the audience exits, the clip of “We Open in Venice” from the musical Kiss Me, Kate played over sound system is a very nice touch. For those unaware, Kiss Me, Kate is a musical version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, another controversial play.

As with all Tabard productions, they partner with a non-profit that is thematically related to the production. For this run, their non-profit partner is the Jewish Community Relations Council of Silicon Valley (JCRC).

This play discusses uncomfortable issues like racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, other-ism in art, and whether art from another time should be forced to conform to the cultural sensitivities at the time of presentation or remain true to its author’s intent. This last concern is not limited to the character of Shylock, or even just to Shakespeare. It is an issue that comes up frequently in theater communities when any work from a bygone era has the potential for offense through language, character, or situation when viewed through a modern lens. In our divisive times, it’s become more difficult for some audience members to see past their internal biases and instead explore the opportunity to use these works as tools to gain insight into the era of origin. This subject is further explored in this A Good Reed Review commentary from 2019.

Shylock runs through 20 June 2021 at the Tabard Theatre located at: 29 N. San Pedro Street, San Jose, CA 95110. Parking is available at the San Pedro Garage directly across the street, and the first 90 minutes are free. Tickets are available to attend in-person if one is fully vaccinated (i.e., at least two weeks past the last COVID-19 vaccination in the series), and proof of vaccination will be required to enter the theater. Alternatively, audiences may purchase tickets to live stream a performance via a multi-camera presentation accessed wherever is convenient via a computer, phone, tablet, or internet capable TV. For tickets, either call (408)679-2330, or purchase online at: https://tabardtheatre.org/shylock/.

Please make time to see this production one way or another. It’s well worth the “trip.” Due to some strong language, this play is not recommended for children under 13.

Shylock, by Mark Leiren-Young
The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, 2nd Edition, by Oxford University Press
To rewrite or not to rewrite, that is the question, A Good Reed Review
Jewish Community Relations Council of Silicon Valley

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