Since the Holocaust, "The Merchant of Venice" -- which opens Sunday at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum -- has been Shakespeare's most controversial play. The story of Shylock, the moneylender who demands his "pound of flesh," has been lauded by some as humanistic and condemned by others as anti-Semitic.
The melancholy comedy, written 300 years after the Jews were expelled from England in 1290, is the frequently produced in Israel. It's also been banned from school districts in Michigan and New York and denounced by Los Angeles-area rabbis.
"It's the kind of play that makes a lot of Jews uncomfortable," says Lawrence Goldmark, past president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, who viewed a 1991 production. "Everyone knows what a 'Shylock' has come to mean in the vernacular. The play reinforces the stereotype of the Jew as avaricious, materialistc, without compassion."
But Shylock can also be perceived as victimized and beleagured -- a point of view shared by the Theatricum's esteemed artistic director, Ellen Geer. "'The Merchant of Venice' isn't a racist play, it's a play about racism," says Geer, who's directing the show. "Every character is racist, including Shylock, but at least he has a reason for hating the Christians. They spit on him, beat him, steal his property, his daughter.
"Is he a perfect character -- no, but he is human. Anyone who goes through what he does would thirst for revenge. The message is that intolerance breeds intolerance and violence breeds violence, which is so pertinent today," Geer says.
During a recent interview at the amphitheater, Geer recites the famous monologue in which Shylock declares: "Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions ... fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons ... as a Christian is?" As the wind picks up, she wonders, "How can people call Shakespeare an anti-Semite, when he's written one of the most brilliant anti-racist speeches of all time?"
If Geer is passionate about "Merchant," she has good reason. She says the first time she saw the play she was 13 and herself a victim of prejudice. Her family had become homeless after her father, the late actor Will Geer, was blacklisted for alleged communist ties.
"I was so upset about the way people treated Shylock," recalls Geer, who at one point lived in a park and had to steal food. "I couldn't stand it, because I know what it's like when society ties you up and nails you down. And I know what it's like when people stone you. Children threw rocks at me and called me 'Little Red,' though that's nothing compared to anti-Semitism." She pauses, then adds, "When I watch the play, I still get a sick feeling in my stomach about the human race."
Like many recent productions of "Merchant," Geer enhances scenes in which the protagonists spout racism. When the character of Portia (alternately played by Susan Angelo and Melora Marshall) badmouths a Moroccan suitor, the actress -- wearing lily-white makeup -- emphasizes the line bidding good riddance to "all of his complexion."
The fictional Christians repeatedly beat Shylock and spit on him. The jail-like design of the moneylender's home is influenced by drawings of the 16th century Jewish ghetto of Venice.
Alan Blumenfeld, the 50-year-old actor who portrays Shylock, has meticulously researched the ghetto and other aspects of the play. "As a Jew playing Shylock, I'm aware of the responsibility of history, of not being a caricature," he says.
Nevertheless, Aaron Breitbart, senior researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, remains concerned about the Theatricum's production. He notes that Shakespeare wrote the play on the heels of Christopher Marlowe's anti-Semitic hit, "The Jew of Malta." "Everyone hated Jews, and Shakespeare cashed in on that," Breitbart says, speaking for himself and not the center. "Given the current situation in the Middle East, which has already inflamed anti-Jewish feelings, the Theatricum's production comes at the worst possible time."
Goldmark, for his part, is chagrined that Shylock's daughter willingly converts to Christianity and that the moneylender is forced to convert. "The message is that Jews are made into better human beings by becoming Christian," he says.
In response, Geer cites a silent sequence she has added to the play: In the scene, Shylock enters his house, removes his cross and secretly lights Shabbat candles.
Even so, Geer and Blumenfeld are bracing themselves for community flak. One Jewish teacher has already refused to allow her public school students to view the play or to participate in a follow-up discussion (the actor and director plan on visiting the school's principal). Some of Blumenfeld's fellow congregants at the Yiddishist Sholem Community have also raised eyebrows: "They're mad at me," he says. "They're worried the play will promote anti-Semitism."
Yet Blumenfeld and Geer remain convinced the play's message is more important than any flak they receive. They say more than 10,000 students, grades three through 12, will see the production and that during previews, children have appeared to "get" the play.
By way of example, Blumenfeld describes the fourth-grader who approached him after a recent performance. "She said, 'It's terrible how mean they are to Shylock. I hope people can stop being mean to each other.' That means we're doing our job."
"The Merchant of Venice" plays on Sundays, 4 p.m., June 2-Sept. 29 at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, midway between Malibu and the San Fernando Valley. General admission tickets are $14 and $22; seniors, students and members of Equity pay $11 and $14; children ages 7-13 are $8; children 6 and under are free. Audiences at the July 14 performance are invited to participate in a preshow discussion beginning at 3 p.m. Because the outdoor amphitheater is rustic, people are advised to dress casually and to bring a coat and cushions for the stadium seating. For tickets and information, call (310) 455-3723.