It’s baffling to consider that scholars only occasionally list “The Merchant of Venice” among Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” Shylock is arguably the most problematic character in the Shakespearean canon. Despite hints of humanity, he is a blatant Jewish stereotype who poses a daunting challenge to modern-day interpreters.
It’s fortunate then that director Jessica Kubzansky is such a tried and true theatrical hand. Her staging of “Everything That Never Happened,” a revisionist retelling of “Merchant” — now in its world premiere at the Boston Court Pasadena — is pristine in every particular, from production design to performances.
Of course, Kubzansky is working from solid material, namely Sarah B. Mantell’s intriguing new play, which reconsiders Shakespeare’s text from a Jewish perspective with the added element of a blistering feminist bent. Given a less authoritative approach, Mantell’s time-hopping, character-driven piece could have blurred into a muddle, but Kubzansky sensitively builds from the play’s initially comedic moments to something very much akin to tragedy.
The action is set in 1596 Venice, but the chronology is pitched outside of place and time. Pointed anachronisms proliferate, while references to Jewish atrocities past, present and future, seem depressingly timeless — they’re Mantell’s pointed reminders of the historical obduracy of anti-Semitism.
The characters have been reduced to four. (Antonio never puts in an appearance, while Portia doesn’t even rate a mention.) There’s Shylock (Leo Marks), the much-vilified Jewish moneylender; his daughter Jessica (Erika Soto), who chafes against Jewish strictures regarding women; Lorenzo (Paul Culos), Jessica’s forbidden Christian love; and Gobbo (Dylan Saunders), Shylock’s Christian servant, who has hidden his feelings for Jessica under the guise of mere friendship.
The Venice ghetto — the first such in history – is the gated enclosure to which all Jews must return before sunset. Longing for freedom in the outer world, Jessica elopes with Lorenzo, leaving her father, Shylock, to cope with the consequences of his rash bargain with Antonio – a ruinous “bond” that Gobbo traduces him into signing. When Jessica returns for her father’s trial and forced baptism, their devastating reunion elicits — judging from the prevalent sniffles among the audience — its fair share of tears.
Defined by their cultures and circumstances, Shylock and Jessica offer a cautionary lesson in this present era of rising anti-Semitism and feminist rage. Audacious, imaginative and moving, Mantell’s play is an overdue recapitulation that lends an eloquent new voice not only to Shylock, here portrayed with resonant humanism, but to Jessica, whose compulsion to break free of the past comes at a terrible price.