nytheatre.com review by Liz Kimberlin
January 27, 2005
Gareth Armstrong’s Shylock, a one-man show now at the Perry Street Theatre, is a loving, truly exquisite production from its haunting music and across-the-ages set (with a backdrop painting of Venice’s Rialto Bridge) right down to the elegant, frame-worthy programs. Armstrong is a thoroughly mesmerizing performer whose work I will run, not walk, to see in future. Much of his material is some of Shakespeare’s finest and most provocative. Most of his own contribution as author is excellent as well.
An accomplished British actor with a sing-song Welsh lilt to his beautiful voice, Armstrong has been performing Shylock for several years now and taken the show all over the world. He deconstructs Shakespeare’s “most controversial character” through Tubal, his best friend (and only friend, as Tubal obsessively reminds us) who breaks the news of Antonio’s financial ruin, as well as Shylock’s daughter Jessica’s (a) eloping with a Gentile “monkey” and (b) vindictive squandering of her father’s fortune. And, as we’re also indignantly reminded countless times, Tubal’s entire playing time in The Merchant of Venice is one scene with eight lines.
Commandeering Merchant’s Act III, Scene 1, Armstrong effortlessly pops back and forth as both Tubal and Shylock. And he’s brilliant. His eyes, already dark and intense, savagely wither the audience one moment, and then twinkle over a childlike grin the next. His Tubal can only stand impotently by as Shylock rages and grieves at his beloved Jessica’s betrayal, and gloats at the pound of flesh now owed to him by Antonio. But Tubal acts here as Shylock’s confessor, and we learn through this exchange how human Shylock truly is. His heart has been so deeply broken, his losses so profound that all he can grasp to ease his pain is the blissful, all-consuming darkness of hatred.
But then Tubal steps out of Shakespeare’s world to become, in effect, the audience’s rabbi/professor/tour guide, and takes us on an informational, occasionally dramatized mini-adventure across two millennia regarding how Jews were generally perceived and, more importantly, how they were depicted by dramatists. To his credit, both as author and performer, Armstrong never proselytizes, never takes an “attitude,” whether pro- or anti-, to Jewry or anti-Semite playwrights or any of his characters. By his own admission in press materials, Armstrong wants his audience to draw their own conclusions.
And here is where I started to get a little confused. Conclusions about what, exactly? Unfortunately, some really intriguing facts and well-written vignettes, both funny and disturbing, almost get lost in the dense, crazy quilt of information Armstrong offers us, and I found no specific conflict on which to focus. How are we supposed to know which way is East if there is no star or sunrise to follow?
Armstrong always redeems himself when he has a real character to play. I could not take my eyes off him when he stepped into the part of Pontius Pilate who “washes his hands” of guilt for condemning Jesus Christ to death and heaps it all instead on the bloodthirsty Jewish crowd. There is a wonderful scene in which Armstrong, quite literally, puts Shylock on a New York analyst’s couch, and we are treated to a Woody Allen-esque exercise in psycho-babble. In another unforgettable, heartbreaking moment, Armstrong dons a braided ginger wig and hook-nosed mask to perform Shylock as he would have been played in Shakespeare’s time: a monstrous farce-like caricature. As Tubal, Shylock’s long-suffering but devoted friend, he is always a delight—as well as very sexy.
But there were times I felt our beloved Tubal slip away, and some nameless PBS documentary host quoting facts and figures stood in his place. “X” amount of Jews were killed in such-and-such racial purge; why the word “ghetto” was first associated with Jews; why the yellow star was worn and later adopted by the Nazis. Fascinating and blood-chilling, yes, but this is talk, not action, and, as far as I’m concerned, not theatre. With all this filler uncohesively weeding its way through much of the second half, the show became long, even at times tedious in the intermission-less 90-minute-or-so production.
It was undeniably a thrill watching Armstrong’s astonishing performance. But alas, when I left his Shylock, I felt I had sat through what was ultimately a very well-done, very entertaining lecture disguised as a play—and I was ready for class to be over.