Gareth Armstrong's Shylock may be billed as a one-man show, but his stage is densely populated. From The Merchant of Venice alone, there's Shylock, his friend Tubal, Antonio and Portia. There's Christopher Marlowe's "Jew of Malta" and, from St. John's Gospel, Pontius Pilate and the bloodlust of the Jewish rabble. There's the grand 19th-century tragedian Henry Irving, his charismatic bibulous predecessor Edmund Kean and various "interpreters" of Shylock, from Bowdler to a sinister censor named Prim. There's even a delicious burlesque of a Freudian analyst. Armstrong carries them all off with bold and utterly convincing shifts of voice, body, blocking and gesture.
Shylock, which played last weekend at the Edison Theatre, is an exhilarating literary travelogue written by Armstrong and masterfully directed by Frank Barrie. As Tubal, a minor character in the play ("Shylock's friend, his only friend"), Armstrong explains how the character has been perceived and presented. First, however, he deposits us abruptly in 12th-century England, where he begins to recount the horrifying journey of anti-Semitism -- and its Christian apologists -- across all of Europe. Along the way, we learn how Venice came to be the scene of Shakespeare's comedy and moneylending the signature commercial activity of 16th-century European Jews. We learn as well of Crusade-era horrors and of Hitler's great affection for Shakespeare's play.
In an extended aside, Armstrong traces the "Jew badge" -- the yellow Star of David -- back hundreds of years before the Nazi death camps. Jews wore the badges throughout Europe even as they were herded into ghettos (Venice had the first). Some were perversely offered a choice of badges, which Armstrong draws from a box and lays on a table. His manner is both playful and deeply grieved, yet he avoids a righteous tone: The outrageousness of this piece of history requires little comment. Returning the symbols to the box, his hand trembles as he reaches for the Star of David -- first gently, as if he's not conscious of it, then uncontrollably.
Superlative stagecraft abounds: Armstrong's split-second transformation into Marlowe's Jew with a Fagin wig snatched from a trunk; plucky geriatric actor Charles Macklin doddering through the role; even a speculated conference between the naturally "strong, silent" Tubal and Shylock as he weighs and grants Antonio's loan. Armstrong's remarkable script manages to weave history and theatrical styles and always keeps us oriented, even as Shylock builds to a virtuoso Merchant courtroom scene minimally narrated by Tubal and then by each of the characters in turn. Here, Armstrong resolutely hews to the most painful, un-PC readings that Shakespeare's text offers. No one is spared: the comic playwright, his money- and revenge-obsessed Jew, the prideful count, the lawyerly Portia (whose concept of mercy is strained indeed as the judgment goes her way) -- and certainly not the audience.
Armstrong's Shylockwill especially leave Christians of many persuasions discomfited. He does not point out the special anti-Semitism of John's Gospel or how opposite John's tone may be to that of the Jewish writers of the New Testament: Paul, Mark and Matthew. And rightly so: The damage of the ages has been done not in John's name but in God's. And just as most of us share the Bible, and more of us share the Hebrew Scripture, we all are blessed to share Shakespeare -- what is light and what is loathsome alike.