The main production of First Folio Theatre's annual "Shakespeare under the Stars" this year is The Merchant of Venice. But having already invested in sets and costumes for Merchant, Managing Director David Rice decided to double-down.
In addition to full productions of Merchant (which opened July 11 and runs through August 19), First Folio will also present four staged readings of Shylock and His Daughter, a rarely seen version of Shakespeare's classic told from Shylock's point of view.
Shylock and His Daughter is based on a novel published by Ari Ibn-Zahav in 1943. Born in Grajewo (a Polish town near the East Prussian border), Ibn-Zahav changed his name from Leyb Goldshteyn when he made aliyah to the Yishuv in 1922. His Hebrew title is best translated as Shylock, the Jew of Venice, but English copies called Jessica My Daughter were published in 1948, and are still available on Amazon.
The theatrical version of Shylock and His Daughter was first performed in 1947 at Maurice Schwartz' famous Yiddish Art Theatre on Second Avenue. Schwartz did the adaptation himself, and, as usual, he also directed the production and starred as "Shylock." It was a hit in New York, and also played at the Biltmore Theater in LA in 1950, but as far as I know, it has rarely been seen on stage since.
I went to First Folio's final dress rehearsal on Tuesday, and I found Shylock and His Daughter truly riveting--a must see. As you might expect, the Christian characters are not treated kindly. Sanctimonious and cruel, they provoke Shylock until he is literally at his wit's end.
But more interesting to me were the Jewish characters, including the Rabbi who first pleads with Shylock to accommodate Christian demands and then excommunicates Shylock when he refuses. Given that this adaptation was written and performed in the immediate aftermath of what we now call "the Holocaust" (before most people understood what had happened, let alone put a label on it), the implications of this public stance stunned me.
I was also amazed by this production's "Jessica" (Shylock's daughter); a character Shakespeare gave very little thought to in Merchant, but someone whose motivations have always fascinated me. Maurice Schwartz is best known to audiences today for his 1939 film version of Sholem Aleichem's Tevye stories, which he also adapted, directed, and starred in (as was his way). In many respects, Schwartz 's Shylock resembles Schwartz 's Tevye, and many of the things that happen to Shylock's Jessica and Tevye's Chava also run parallel.
Kudos to the principal cast members (especially Michael Goldberg as "Shylock" and Cassidy Stirtz as "Jessica") for taking on this arduous theatrical adventure, transforming themselves nightly from one version to the other. I haven't seen First Folio's Merchant yet, but the reviews I've read by others (in the Chicago Tribune, the Daily Herald, and elsewhere) are uniformly positive, and echo what I saw with my own eyes.
Performances begin at 8:15 PM at the Mayslake Peabody Estate (five minutes from the entrance to Oak Brook Mall on 22nd Street). It's a beautiful outdoor venue, but remember to bring your mosquito repellent to ward off any uninvited guests!
To purchase tickets, visit: http://www.firstfolio.org. Act quickly because there are only four performances total: July 26, August 2, August 9, and August 16. (All four dates are Thursdays.)
Read my review of Maurice Schwartz's Tevye (available in a beautifully restored version from the National Center for Jewish Film).