Review: Holocaust play exposes Shakespeare's cruel humor

By Vladimir Bunoan,

Posted at Oct 11 2013 11:37 AM | Updated as of Oct 11 2013 10:53 PM

Review: Holocaust play exposes Shakespeare's cruel humor 1
A scene from "Der Kaufmann." Photo from the Facebook page of Tanghalang Pilipino

MANILA -- William Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" may be classified as a comedy but there is nothing even remotely funny about "Der Kaufmann," Tanghalang Pilipino's brave re-visioning of the classic play set during the Holocaust in World War II.

Working on Rolando Tinio's Filipino translation of the popular Shakespeare work, playwright and co-director Rody Vera does not merely transpose "The Merchant of Venice" to a more modern period and in a foreign country, like many modern-dress productions of the Bard's plays. What Vera accomplishes in "Der Kaufmann" is beyond mere creativity; instead, he has fashioned a nearly complete work on its own.

And he does this brilliantly without the benefit of additional dialogue, save for the monosyllabic taunts and orders of "Hudyo."

"Der Kaufmann" is essentially a play within a play, set in a concentration camp, with the Jewish and homosexual prisoners forced to act out Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice."

The antisemitic theme of Shakespeare's work -- the Jewish moneylender Shylock is the play's villain, villified by his "extreme cruelty" after he insists that he gets his "pound of flesh" after the titular merchant defaults on his debt -- has been a subject of endless debates, while the supposed homosexual love between the lead characters, the merchant Antonio and his friend Bassanio, has also been widely discussed.

In "Der Kaufmann," Vera and co-director Tuxqs Rutaquio unapologetically bring these two contentious themes to the fore against the backdrop of Nazi persecution of Jews and homosexuals in World War II.

Indeed, historical evidence show that the Nazis have mounted productions of "The Merchant of Venice" as part of their propaganda against the Jews.

But, as Vera pointed out in his program notes, such depiction is probably the closest to Shakespeare's original intent. It has been documented that actors traditionally portray Shylock as "a repulsive clown or, alternatively, as monster of unrelieved evil."

And this is what makes "Der Kaufmann" both compelling and horrifying. Vera turns the tables on the Bard, while still supposedly adhering to Shakespeare's own intent. By playing the work for laughs, "The Merchant of Venice" becomes an act of cruelty in itself. Shakespeare's own words gain a whole new meaning, from Antonio's opening lament, ""In sooth I know not why I am so sad," to the play's most famous "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech by Shylock. Portia's monologue about "the quality of mercy" is reduced to political double-speak (and delivered with a cold, condescending tone by Regina de Vera).

"Der Kaufmann" begins with a Jewish man, his wife and daughter being hauled into prison, amid taunts from the Nazi guards. After the setting has been established, the prisoners and their guards/officers perform Shakespeare's work, with only subtle hints from the actors, as well as orders of "Hudyo," delineating thge reality of war from play-acting.

In the play's most harrowing scene, Shylock is played by the Jewish man, his wife and his daughter, as Vera takes its cruel humor -- and the cliche, the play must go on -- to the extreme.

Shakespeare's happy ending with Portia and Bassanio, and their respective sidekicks, celebrate at Belmont is turned into a chilling Nazi victory party.

Vera and Rutaquio execute this vision perfectly and even the set design, repurposed from last year's "Walang Kukurap" served their purposes well. In fact, this two-tier stage with sliding wire fences, makes more sense here, and John Batalla's lighting design, which switches to harsh spotlights for the "performance," doesn't just set mood but almost has a dictatorial bent on its own.

Hands down, this is also the ensemble performance of the year. Although the leads deliver excellently, from Marco Viana's pained Antonio to de Vera's deviously manipulative Portia and Jonathan Tadioan's affecting Shylock, "Der Kaufmann" demands to be seen as a whole and not just for its parts.

In a year when most theater companies are churning out entertaining musicals, "Der Kaufmann" easily towers above the rest not only for its provocative content. After seeing this, no one can ever watch "The Merchant of Venice" again if presented in the traditional lighthearted approach. Vera has effectively destroyed any notion of it being just another comedy -- and we are all better off because of that.

"Der Kaufmann" runs for a final weekend at the Tanghalang Huseng Batute of the Cultural Center of the Philippines.