Bardolotrous Back-talk on the Beach

Jewish actor enacts Jewish actor counter-acting Jewish reactionaries.

Warren Kimmel peels back masks under masks. Photo: Tim Matheson

Fuck your feelings.

Not long ago, that sentiment could only be spelled out (here at this website, anyway) in the coy typography of a grawlix.

Now, however, FYF unfurls in all its four-letter glory as a full-fledged, freely circulated meme. You can even banner it across your bosom[s] in matching his-n-her tee shirts (6 oz., 100% pre-shrunk, high density, ring-spun cotton tricot) available online from some of the fine folks backing the Leader of the Free World.

Of course the rest of us – most of the V.O.-reading, theatre-going public – are duly appalled. So, indeed, are most Canadians of any stripe; for an incontinently apologetic tribe like us, other people’s feelings are not to be f&#!ked with.

Especially umbrageous other people who could picket in protest or fire off Letters to the Editor. What could matter more than that?

Art, that’s what. A-list art, Art with a capital ‘A.’

Or maybe a capital ‘S,’ for Shakespeare. So says Warren Kimmel in Vancouver playwright Mark Leiren-Young’s Shylock, a 90-minute solo tour de force that just opened as the final offering of this year’s Bard on the Beach (Bo’B) Festival.

Kimmel, a South African-born Jew, has been starring – as Shylock, of course – in the brilliant Merchant of Venice production that has highlighted the 2017 Bo’B season. Now, in the Leiren-Young monologue, he plays a Jewish actor, one ‘Jon Davies,’ who has just finished playing Shylock in a Festival production of Shakespeare’s darkling, problematic, arguably anti-Semitic masterpiece.

How meta- can you get?

Just to keep the two performances from getting too cross-referential, a few superficial distinctions are drawn. In Merchant, director Nigel Shawn Williams tricks out Kimmel as a contemporary Wall Streeter, a shark-in-a-yarmulke on the Goldman Sachs model.

But in Shylock, director Sherry Yoon has ‘Davies’ first appear onstage as a gross caricature, a kind of demoniacal Tevye, with scraggly red beard and hair, a great, hooked beak of a putty schnoz, a broad-brimmed black hat and dangling tallit fringes.

Kimmel gradually peels off all this integument, all the while discoursing on the multi-layered characterization of Shakespeare’s complex anti-hero and his own internal challenges as an actor inhabiting the role.

But it’s external challenges that have brought these contradictions to a head. In the hypothetical set-up to Leiren-Young’s script, unlike the actuality of the current Bo’B season, the Festival run of Merchant has been shut down due to a concerted picketing and letter-writing campaign by aggrieved, hypersensitive denizens (mostly Jewish) of academic “safe zones.”

They fear the play as an entry-level drug for neo-Nazi pogroms. They want it banned from the stage and, preferably, purged from the canon. “So why not burned, while we’re at it?” Kimmel/‘Davies’ asks, in a valedictory audience “talk-back” session after the final performance of Merchant’s truncated run.

He relates how, in successive portrayals, his own conception of the role has evolved from a slapstick Borscht Belt figure-of-fun to a poor, victimized target of gratuitous bullying (“hath not a Jew eyes…” yadda, yadda). And now he’s arrived at his current rendering of Shylock as grandly – even nobly – conflicted, but a “villain” nonetheless in his implacable lust for vengeance.

Such a reading, he’s convinced, would be more true to Shakespeare’s own undoubtedly prejudiced view of a Jewish money-lender. Like most of his contemporary countrymen, he’d likely never have met an actual Jew – they’d been banned from England for nearly a century by Good Queen Bess’s time, and the word ‘usurer’ was deemed an insult. If anything, the Bard’s anti-Semitism would be mild compared with such acknowledged latter-day literary luminaries as T.S. Eliot or F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Scathing as he is in his mockery of the latest round of Festival picketers, he’s even more dismissive of the long lineage of bluenoses who’ve tried to plane down the rough edges of Shakespeare in particular and literature in general. Kimmel delivers a simpering send-up of Henrietta Bowdler, co-editor of the Victorian era ‘Family Shakespeare’ revision of the canon expunged of risqué language or raunchy allusions. (“Out, crimson spot…”).

Kimmel also channels the contortions of a Festival director struggling to shield box office receipts from a P.R. brushfire while paying due lip-service to the ideals of artistic integrity – eerily reminiscent of the back-peddling by various public- and private-sector sponsors of this year’s Trump-themed Public Theatre production of Julius Caesar in New York.

Except instead of temporizing in a New York twang, the hypothetical director in Shylock wheedles in the plummy, orotund phonemes of Bo’B artistic director Chistopher Gaze. Prominent in the opening night audience in a third-row centre seat, Gaze seemed to take the ribbing in good part.

After all, Shylock is very much a Vancouver product. The script first premiered at Bo’B 21 years ago before going on to win multiple awards and productions throughout North America and Europe. Its B.C.-based author also showed up for Shylock’s opening night to bask in the adulation of a friendly hometown crowd; his next play, Bar Mitzvah Boy will premiere at Vancouver’s Pacific Theatre in March. Director Yoon, for her part, made her name mounting Boca del Lupo’s site-specific programs throughout the city; her next project will be Gateway Theatre’s King of the Yees at the National Arts Centre.

With audience and production personnel so tightly interlinked, no wonder Shylock should be so smoothly staged and so rapturously received. Be sure to take it in during its all-too-fleeting week-long Bo’B run (especially in conjunction with Merchant, if you haven’t seen it already).

But, make no mistake: this play is no lightweight. It’s provocative theatre, bound to upend some of your preconceptions, whatever they may be.

Since when, after all, is Art supposed to be a “safe space?” Perhaps its value lies precisely in its danger.

So, snowflakes, fuck – or, as Henrietta Bowdler might more decorously phrase it, “cross-fertilize” – your feelings! They just might grow gravid with something richer and stranger than you ever expected.

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