LENOX — When Shakespeare & Company last put on "The Merchant of Venice" in a production at the Mount in 1998, it set off a sharp debate about whether the play is worth the trouble. It has a central character, the moneylender Shylock, who is a grab-bag of awful anti-Semitic stereotypes about greedy, vengeful Jews, leading some to argue the play belonged to a different age and should probably stay there.
The debate played out among audiences and across the letters pages of The Berkshire Eagle. But for Tina Packer, the company's founder and director of that production, as well as one beginning this weekend, that debate was precisely why the play had to be performed.
"This play — like 'Taming of the Shrew' and several other what I call 'ugly plays' — really needs to be done because (it) bring(s) you right up against the things you don't want to think about," she said during an interview at the Tina Packer Playhouse, where the production officially opens Sunday afternoon, after a week of previews. It is scheduled to run in repertory through Aug. 21.
In the central role of Shylock, again, is longtime Shakespeare & Company associate Jonathan Epstein, who is in his 29th season with the company.
Epstein, who is Jewish, echoed Packer's sentiment and said it is a mistake to think theater's most important mission is to simply model correct behavior.
"What art does," he said, joining Packer for the interview, "is allow us to dive into the depths of our spirit and bring things up that we're not aware of."
The controversy spins around Shylock. a Jewish moneylender in the commercial hub of Venice, and a debt owed him by a Christian trader named Antonio, played by John Hadden. As the play opens, the two have a long history of distant antagonism, which explodes when Shylock demands his "pound of flesh" in exchange for a defaulted bond Antonio had taken out for his friend, Bassanio, played by Shahar Isaaac, who needed it to court a wealthy young woman.
The way Shylock and Antonio circle each other is the heart of the play.
"This is what it is like when two grown intelligent men wrestle with questions of what is right to do and how can we reach each other," Epstein said.
The anti-Semitic nature of the antipathy toward Shylock is unavoidable. And while that alone was enough to rile audiences 18 years ago, the conversation seems to have shifted. After years of conversation about ethnicity and cultural diversity, the time feels right for an opportunity to unlock the bigger themes in the text.
"In 1998," Epstein said, "this was about Jewishness. And now I think people will be drawn to the parallels to the outsider from Mexico, or from Syria. That's more to the fore."
The way Shylock is presented has changed through the years — for a long time he was usually played wearing a costume of bright red hair and a large fake nose. But even at the time, Shakespeare's Jewish character is far more nuanced than others. His peer, Christopher Marlowe, wrote "The Jew of Malta," which features an over-the-top, violent Jewish villain, just a few years earlier, Shylock, for all his faults, doesn't poison the well at a convent like Marlowe's Barabas does.
Epstein notes that in "Merchant," Shylock is an important part of his community, whose capital and business acumen is part of what made the city state the commercial power it was for centuries. That translated into a certain amount of respect — Epstein notes the Christians even call him "sir," at least up to the pivotal conflict. Shakespeare also makes it clear that Shylock is the victim of years of unfair treatment and mistrust from the likes of Antonio.
The play also underscores a number of ethnic and gender stereotypes. There is a Prince of Morocco, who, in his brief appearance, asks the assembled to "mislike me not for my complexion." And women don't have it easy: Portia, played by Tamara Hickey, is clever enough to craft a brilliant legal case, but her life and future are reduced to being a prize for whatever lucky suitor wins a silly game contrived by her late father.
Along the way are eloquent appeals to humanity and mercy. Shylock makes a sensible appeal, reasoning, "If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?" And Portia waxes eloquent that "the quality of mercy is not strain'd, / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven," as she tries to dissuade Shylock from his demands.
The question of how to play Shylock is the heart of the performance. Since he played the part in 1998, Epstein has played Antonio twice, which he said has given him greater perspective on the conflict. The goal is to present the character fully — including his frailty and vulnerability, which he said presents a particular challenge — so that the audience appreciates that he behaves as he does in spite of being a Jew, not because of it.
"If you try to make him nicer, all you get is a dishonest play," Epstein said. "He's not nice. He's troubled. And what you want as far as sympathy is you want people to be in love with his humanity and horrified by those things that make him inhumane."
Elizabeth Aspenlieder, a Shakespeare & Company mainstay who is serving as associate director for the first time, said the rest of the cast — which includes actors from Israel, Great Britain, Canada, and India — projects the swirl of cosmopolitan Venice.
"There is a blur of those lines," she said during the joint interview with Packer and Epstein. "There are only 14 actors in the play, and some play four or five parts. They are a slave, a merchant, a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim."
For the first time in its history, the Tina Packer Playhouse has been configured in the round. Epstein said that gives this production a level of intimacy that was impossible to match in 1998 at The Mount.
That configuration also shapes much of the feel for the performance, with many seats nearly eye-level with the actors, bringing the audience into the drama in a conversation that is vital.
"We talk [to the audience] all the time," Packer said. "They are part of play. They are the court, and we are delivering the argument to them."
That collective consciousness and discussion is an important part of the work.
"The audience is not excluded in Shakespeare's writing," Packer said. "You need to be able to say we are in this together. I need you to think about this, to feel this."
What: "The Merchant of Venice" by William Shakespeare. Directed by Tina Packer; associate director, Elizabeth Aspenlieder
Who: Shakespeare & Company
When: Now through Aug. 21 (press opening — 4 p.m. Sunday). In rotating repertory. Selected afternoons and evenings at 2 and 7:30
Where: Tina Packer Playhouse, 70 Kemble St., Lenox