W hat do you get when a Hungarian who can't speak English filters his vision of America--IN English--through one of the most challenging plays in the entire Shakespeare canon?
No, it's not the setup to some highbrow literary joke, but the reality of Portland Center Stage's current production. The answer is Robert Alf-ldi's rendition of The Merchant of Venice--the vilest, rudest, ugliest, crassest, most offensive project you will ever witness on a well-funded regional stage.
Never have I seen so many despicable people in one play. Alf-ldi has robbed every last character of even the tiniest scrap of whimsy, decency, or hope for humanity that Shakespeare might have once intended to endow them with. Granted, Merchant's tale of a shifty Jew squaring off against a crew of equally shifty Christians, has never been an easy pill to swallow. But this leather-clad, leering cast of rapists, murderers, and thieves is very nearly indigestible. Here, men copulate with men while sweaty clubbers grind to Eminem's "White America." Couples writhe and grope on the floor while their friends cheer around them, and Lorenzo (Michael A. Newcomer) fucks his unfortunate wife Jessica (Kelly Tallent) over an office desk with such force she can hardly walk.
These "Christians" greet the pitiful Shylock (a blazing Scott Coopwood) with ironic "Hail Hitler" stiff-armed salutes, spit on him, and to cap things off, kick him to death (no, that's not in the original text). Such ridiculous extremities made the traditionalist in me nauseous, and yet I can't fault the vision itself, but only how well it is pursued, and Alf-di hunts his vision like a jungle cat. Multimedia blares, screens and cameras everywhere, music blasting. Some of it works (Wade McCollum playing with a handheld digital camera as the clown Lancelot), and some of it is entirely unnecessary, but never is it boring to watch.
This play filled me with a loathing and discomfort so acute I can only recommend it. Rarely in this city is theater so affecting. Watching the SUV-driving seasonal subscribers and senior citizens squirm in their seats is alone worth the price of admission. JUSTIN WESCOAT SANDERS