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Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 492-494
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Shylock. By Gareth Armstrong. Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater, Morris Cafritz Center for the Arts, Washington, D.C. 18 November 2001.
Gradient red letters on a light brown strongbox announce: "The Merchant of Venice." In a theatrical event composed of a disjointed compilation of race theory, Jewish history, theatrical history, Shakespearean text, biblical scripture, touches of folk wisdom, and psychoanalysis, the ever-present trunk serves as a synergetic image of the traveling player, dramatic masks, and the Jewish Diaspora. Plural strains tracing intellectual, emotional, and theatrical readings of the infamous Shakespearean Jew overlap and layer Gareth Armstrong's monodrama. It stars not Shylock, but his sole ally, Tubal, who (as he reminds the audience) speaks a mere eight lines in one scene in all of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. As Armstrong bemoans the size of Tubal's part, it becomes difficult to distinguish the subordination of the actor from the subordination of the Jewish race. Armstrong's solo piece oscillates so freely between disparate themes (Armstrong finishes narrating the 1946 murder of fourteen Polish Jews with: "That's enough real life. [End Page 492] Back to the theatre!") that it obfuscates the boundaries between multiple real and imagined identities. An ongoing process of margin displacement—imagined Elizabethan actor/Tubal, imagined actor/Armstrong, actor subordination/racial subordination, theatre history/race history, theatre/reality—provides the structural constitution of Shylock.
Shylock tours the United States and Canada under the auspices of Robert Friedman Presents, which offers such works as MacHomer, a production of MacBeth acted by characters from the animated television program, The Simpsons, and Armstrong's Dr. Prospero. The Helen Hayes award-winning Theater J (or DCJCC, currently celebrating its tenth anniversary) contracted the piece as part of its commitment both to extend the "Jewish theatrical legacy" and to "celebrate theatrical form at its most elemental." Armstrong's performances have won him critical acclaim internationally. He cycles easily from dynamic, broad gesticulations when his Tubal is presenting scenes from Merchant, to more controlled, simpler movements when conversing with the audience, though he fails to adjust simultaneously his powerful, technically trained voice, which occasionally overwhelms conversational moments, especially in DCJCC's intimate stage space. However, the most interesting characteristic of Shylock is not Armstrong's accomplished acting but its commentary on the construction and performance of multiple, intersecting identities.
Armstrong executes his enigmatic text through a series of masks, literally and figuratively. He summons Henry Irving's Shylockcostume, a hooked nose, tangled red hair, and a barrister's robe from the trunk, but also enacts recognizable visual signs of historical actors, Dracula, and Adolph Hitler. Armstrong questioned his "impertinence" as a Gentile seeking to embody Shylock, concluding that, while he could never understand the Jewish experience, he could impersonate the characteristics Jews portray for survival, which he sees as "dynamism and humor [...] plenty of energy and jokes." Although this may seem a disturbingly idealized archetype of Jewishness, Armstrong also claims that, despite the efforts of literary critics, historians, and race theorists, only the actor truly understands the character of Shylock. Indeed, Shylock is not a Jewish person. He is a mask, a series of dramatic signs created by a playwright who, as Armstrong's Tubal states, "never met a Jew, 'officially.'" [End Page 493]
The masks in Shylock exist in a complex interaction of present and represented actors and characters. Armstrong dons his "comic Jew" nose and wig to orate Shylock's "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech, raising his voice to a high, screeching pitch, enacting centuries of racist demonizing in plays from il Pecorone to Merchant. After summoning several variations on the Venetian Jew, such as Christopher Marlowe's Barabbas, Armstrong returns to Tubal's deep baritone stage voice for the word "revenge," a vocal and physical shift he plays on in several subsequent masks. He recreates Charles Macklin's final exit when playing Shylock at eighty-nine years of age. Discussing Edmund Kean's villainous Shylock bent on "revenge," he turns to the side and raises an open, declamatory right hand, mimicing the actor's...