In all of Shakespeare there are just two Jewish characters, both found in “The Merchant of Venice.”
One is world famous: Shylock, the moneylender who demands as his security a “pound of flesh,” a role that has been played by the leading actors of every age since the play was first performed. The other is Tubal, Shylock’s friend, who dwells among Shakespeare’s most obscure characters.
That’s the starting point for “Shylock,” a one-actor play by Gareth Armstrong that theatergoers can see Guy Masterson perform as part of “British Invasion 2011” at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre. This two-act play is wide-ranging, encyclopedic, profoundly serious and very funny as it intertwines theater history with the perception and treatment of Jews in Britain.
Masterson, a charismatic performer with a booming voice and a larger-than-life stage presence, brings a refined sensibility to this piece. That play is dense and complex but Masterson maintains maximum clarity throughout. Masterson plays our host for the evening, Tubal himself, who insists that even though Shakespeare gives him only eight lines, he is nevertheless an important and influential character.
Some of the history is sobering: the murder in 1140 of William of Norwich, a youth whose violent death was attributed to Jews and originated the myth of Jews using the blood of Christian children in religious ritual; the York massacre of 1190; the ruling by Pope Innocent III in 1215 that all Jews (and Muslims) should publicly wear a yellow badge, long before the Nazis; and the expulsion of Jews by edict of Edward I in 1290.
Oliver Cromwell’s decision in 1656 to allow them to return was motivated in part, the play suggests, by the economically depressed country’s need for some banking expertise.
Tubal also guides us through the history of the English theater, beginning with the observation that – because of the expulsion – William Shakespeare had never met a Jew. Nor did he know much about Venice. And he had a jumbled sense of geography.
Early on Shylock was portrayed in the broadest stereotypical way, with a hook nose and ginger hair, depicted as either a clown or a monster. But things began to change when Charles Macklin, an 18th century star of the London stage, played Shylock in an “authentic” manner by researching the traditional Jewish customs and dress. In the 19th century, Edmund Keane established a new tradition of portraying Shylock sympathetically, as a victim of bigotry.
The piece allows Masterson to recreate scenes from “The Merchant of Venice,” sometimes humorously, and to perform amusing asides about the New Testament, the fate of minor characters and the plight of minor actors.
It all adds up to a sumptuous theatrical, historical and intellectual feast served up in a bravura performance.
“Shylock” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre. “British Invasion 2011” continues with “American Poodle” and a “Chip in the Sugar” at 7:30 p.m. Friday; “September in the Rain” at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; and “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” (with “A Chip in the Sugar”) at 7:30 p.m. Sunday. For more information, visit cstkc.com or call 816-516-4422