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«Shylock» Is Rich and Poor
"The Moscow Times" ,
I cannot recall the last time I was as perplexed by a production as I was by "Shylock," Robert Sturua's abridgement of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" at the Et Cetera Theater. Is this a bold, imaginative work that draws artistic force from the almost shocking ambiguity of Shakespeare's play about a clash between the Jewish and Christian worlds? Yes, it is. Or, is it a strangely misguided work, bereft of energy and rambling -- despite the fact it has been severely and expertly cut? Well, yes. It is that, too. As I watched this curious, fascinating and maddening show unfold, I had the impression I was witnessing something akin to a brilliant pianist's brilliant performance of a brilliant concerto marred utterly by one fatal flaw: The pianist's hands somehow were shifted on the keyboard one key to the right. The result was that the timing, the intonations, the interpretations and the relationships among the composition's components were nearly perfect, but almost every note was wrong. Seldom have I so thoroughly enjoyed a show that frustrated me so. Sturua, the great Georgian director and leader of the Rustaveli Theater in Tbilisi, is a man of phenomenal inventiveness. That is immediately evident when the curtain parts on the excellent set by Georgy Alexi-Meskhishvili. The action is set in a modern stock broker's office, a sterile environment dominated by TV sets and computer monitors. On one side of this environment, a herd of copper-colored barnyard animals -- pigs and cows -- intrudes incongruously, while on the opposite side stands the hint of a magical world in the form of some beautiful blue trees. This eclectic image signals Sturua's diverse approach. He brings the story of cultural and racial conflict home to us by setting it in a contemporary mileau. At the same time, he avoids turning it into a journalistic exercise by playing with elements of myth and symbolism. The cows and pigs, perhaps like Jews and Gentiles, are dissimilar beings who coexist in a single world, while the seemingly enchanted wood across the way may be a reminder of the dreams people have no matter who they are. Sturua introduces elements of the eclectic throughout the show. Antonio (Alexander Filippenko), the Venetian merchant who borrows money from the wealthy Jew Shylock (Alexander Kalyagin), is an enigma who drifts about in a state of semi-dream or semi-Buddhist bliss. Shylock's servant Launcelot (Viktor Verzhbitsky) is designated by Shakespeare as a clown, but Sturua carries that determination to extremes -- here, he is part Harlequin and part sorcerer. The princes of Morocco and Arragon (both played by Igor Zolotovitsky) who have come to win the hand of the beautiful Portia (Alyona Ivchenko) are handled as caricatures. The production's focus, signaled in the title change, is the predicament of the Jewish Shylock existing in a world of Christian laws, habits and prejudices. Even Antonio's friend Salanio (Vladimir Skvortsov) becomes a stock broker sporting a yarmulke. Sturua, to his credit, made no attempt to whitewash Shylock, certainly one of the most complex characters in world literature. Abused and hated by the Christians of Venice, Shylock is a man driven by the desire for either justice or revenge, it is difficult to say which. Certainly, he establishes harsh terms in the event that Antonio defaults on his loan -- a pound of flesh cut from anywhere on the body he chooses. More shocking is his insistence that these terms be met when Antonio does fail to pay. This production does not explain away the uncomfortable truths of the central conflict. It is as if Sturua were making a simple statement artistically: People are different and their differences cause strife. As a supreme artist, he knows that art's business is to pose questions, not solve problems. And yet, so little of what I have described works practically. Sturua, accustomed to working with his extraordinarily energetic Georgian actors, created a show that is incompatible with the capabilities of the Moscow cast. It is not a matter of better or worse, but of difference in temperaments. You can see that Sturua conceived his characters as larger than life, but most of the time they are played on a small, intimate level. They do not fill the space the director created for them. The primary exception to this rule are the roles of Portia and Jessica (Maria Skosyreva), Shylock's daughter who abandons her father and runs away with a Christian lover. Sturua slashed both parts to a minimum -- in fact, he lopped off the entire fifth act -- although he and his actresses filled what was left with a maximum of substance. Ivchenko and Skosyreva carry off the director's mix of realistic individuality and mythical generalizations as no one else in the cast can do. "Shylock," for me, was a mass of contradictions. I was fascinated by its visual aspect and genuinely affected by its fearless presentation of a sensitive theme. And yet I thought the performance limped almost from beginning to end.