Jewish director buys into Merchant adaptation

Daniel Fish is a Jew. And if you prick him, he will bleed. If you tickle him, he will laugh. And if you poison him, he will die. But he doesn’t feel that makes him uniquely qualified to direct Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.”

“I wouldn’t say you have to be Jewish to direct this play,” said Fish, who will be doing just that for California Shakespeare Theater (CalShakes), with opening night Wednesday, August 9.

“Look, there are harsh representations of black people in the play, of gay people and of women. Do you have to be a gay, black woman” to direct?

Some in Jewish circles have said that “Merchant” — with its unforgettable character of Shylock the Jew, who vindictively attempts to obtain his “pound of flesh” from Antonio before being hoodwinked, stripped of his worldly possessions and forced into conversion by the Christian “heroes” of the play — is too bitter and innately anti-Semitic to be shown under any context. Fish isn’t biting.

He thinks it should be presented “because it’s a great play! I don’t think the possibility a play might offend or upset people is a reason not to do it. Certainly there is anti-Semitism in the play. But I don’t know if that means the play itself is anti-Semitic.”

In Shylock, Shakespeare has honed a character “who has reams to say and is a complicated, emotional human being. He is a human being who is by turns good, bad, loving; someone to whom cruel things are done and who does cruel things. I think to say the play shouldn’t be done is a bit like choosing the golden casket” — an allusion to the three caskets the suitors of the character Portia had to choose from if they attempted to win her hand.

In selecting the golden or silver casket over the leaden one, the suitors fell victim to myopia and superficiality, and were forced to live their lives out as bachelors. Anyone who objects to the staging of “Merchant” by Fish or anyone else, thankfully, does not have to fulfill such a vow.

Fish, a New Yorker, isn’t out to offend theatergoers, but he isn’t taking pains to avoid doing so. “Merchant” is his third production with CalShakes; and while he’s a veteran of Shakespearian theater, this is his first engagement with this particular play.

“To a certain extent it fascinates me because I don’t get it. The mercenary aspects of the play are particularly fascinating. The extent to which all the relationships in the play, even those of the most personal and erotic nature, take on a mercenary air — that’s a real way in for me,” he said.

“The play is a lot about money. It’s called ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ not ‘The Jew of Venice.'”

While many Jewish audience members throughout the years (including those of the recent film version of “Merchant,” of which Fish was not a fan) find themselves in the doomed and uncomfortable position of rooting for the increasingly erratic Shylock (whose fate is a foregone conclusion), one gleans Fish’s production will not be structured quite that way.

While many versions of the play set up the Jew as a villain who gets his due, Fish points out that “it’s hard to find a person who is wholly sympathetic in this play. And furthermore, it’s a play replete with contradiction. [Characters] are cruel one minute and at the very next moment, to the same person, they act with enormous humanity. And that contradiction is Shakespeare.”

And if theater-goers are a bit unnerved by those rampant contradictions, that’s a risk Fish is willing to take.

“If they’re offended by it, that’s OK. If they find it funny, that’s OK. If they’re shocked, that’s OK. If they’re bored by it, that’s not OK.”

“The Merchant of Venice” previews Aug. 9, 10 and 11 at Orinda’s Bruns Amphitheater, then opens Saturday, Aug. 12 at 8 p.m. for a run through Sept. 3. Tickets range from $15 to $57. Information: (510) 548-9666 or visit www.CalShakes.org.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.