“The Merchant of Venice” is the most problematic work of the Shakespeare canon and remains the longest-running and most performed high-profile work of art that can still be routinely interpreted as anti-Semitic. In light of recent remarks by Rev. Jesse Jackson and the ensuing debate that followed about whether or not there is ever an “appropriate, ” even inclusive context for a word with as hateful a history as the “n” word, the timeliness of the Bohemian Theatre Ensemble presenting the show in its home base of Rogers Park promoted throughout the neighborhood by posters that look as if they were leftovers from a Nazi propaganda rally will undoubtedly raise more eyebrows than could ever actually attend the show to seek out what BoHo has up its sleeve. This ultra-streamlined and fast-moving adaptation, cut to the bone by director Peter Robel, makes very clear its perspective from the outset by the constant presence of characters whispering, both in audible actuality backstage and silhouetted against screens and throughout a very cleverly constructed soundtrack, allowing the entire “us” vs. “them” theme of the play to emerge in sharp relief to demonstrate what a collective effort any ostracization of one group by another must always be. In this version, Jewish lender Shylock (Fred A. Wellisch) is initially polite and genteel, with his early remarks about refusing to eat or drink with his Christian clients more a matter of self-defense than elitism—after all, they routinely spit on him and call him dog, but now, they need him. As Shylock’s worst fears of being used by his enemies are realized beyond his wildest imagination, he retreats to the same kind of radical extremism that frequents our daily news and his day in court becomes his sole chance to air out a lifetime of being used and abused by the hateful majority that surrounds and smothers him. It is a powerful portrait of a man driven over the edge, which has always been in the text itself, but which has often been played as a caricature as one-dimensional as the ironic poster promoting this far more filled-out portrayal. (Dennis Polkow)
At Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood, (773)791-2393.