I’m headed to the Duke on 42nd Street theater today to see a marathon of sorts: F. Murray Abraham in two shows that say plenty about how Jews were viewed in Shakespeare’s time — or not. At 2 p.m., he’s Shylock in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” and at 8 p.m., he’s Barabas in Christopher Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta.”
I figured since the Oscar-winner has to do both shows in one day, I could, too.
I’ll report back tomorrow on what I saw, and also about two Shakespeare productions on stages very near to you.
I spoke with Ron Liebman last fall about Shylock, the character at the center of the Shakespeare work, as Liebman prepared for an open rehearsal in Pleasantville in November.
Here’s that story:
Weighing Shylock’s pound of flesh
Ron Leibman has an idea of what to expect when he shows up at the Rosenthal JCC in Pleasantville on Saturday.
He knows he’ll be going to an open rehearsal of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” and that he’ll be reading the part of Shylock the Jew, the villain of the piece.
He knows the director, Brian Kulick, artistic director of Classic Stage Company, with whom he’s worked before, including at another open rehearsal, of “King Lear.”
He knows the role, having played Shylock at the Public Theater in a 1995 production, which he concedes he “was not happy with.”
“So when Brian asked me to do this I thought, ‘Wow! Here’s another shot at at least part of it.'”
With Kulick at the helm, Leibman and a handful of other actors will read a few of the scenes from stools on the stage at the JCC.
They’ll stop and start and ask the director questions, just as they would do in a regular rehearsal, one not attended by hundreds of onlookers. That glimpse into the actor’s craft can be enlightening, Leibman says.
“I didn’t know if that was going to be interesting or not when we did ‘King Lear,’ because I’d never done anything like that before,” he says.
“But the audience loves it because it’s actually quite funny, if you’re with nice people, meaning the company of actors.”
“The Merchant of Venice” is a play that draws controversy wherever it is played, for its anti-Semitic tone.
The title character, Antonio, helps his friend Bassanio secure a loan from the moneylender Shylock by agreeing to forfeit “a pound of flesh” if the debt is not repaid. When all goes wrong for Antonio, Shylock – his sworn enemy – demands his pound of flesh. The matter ends up in court and Shylock is rebuffed and ordered to become a Christian.
Leibman says Shakespeare used the character sparingly in the text.
“Shylock towers over theater history, but it’s amazing that he’s only in about five scenes,” Leibman says.
If audiences have worries and concerns about “The Merchant of Venice,” so does at least one actor – Leibman – who won a Tony Award for “Angels in America” and appeared in the film “Norma Rae” and, more recently, on the HBO series “The Sopranos.”
“I have my own questions about the play: whether this play can really work, post Holocaust. I don’t know. It always causes a furor, no matter how it’s done.
“Shylock is not a quiet character, he’s filled with rage at what’s been done to him,” Leibman says.
And what’s been done to Shylock over the years has been a reimagining by several of the finest actors of their day.
As for what the audience will see in Pleasantville on Saturday, Leibman’s not entirely sure.
After all, who really knows what’s going to happen at a rehearsal?
“It’s really about, ‘Why do I say this now, Brian? Why would this character suddenly be cornered here? Or seem to be cornered?’ ”
Kulick will provide context and set the stage for the scenes and guide the actors through the exercise.
Saturday’s open rehearsal provides a brief break from Leibman’s “day job” as chairman of the acting department at The New School, where he teaches four classes a week and oversees the curriculum of the three-year graduate program.
Leibman won’t have to travel far for the Pleasantville event.
He and his wife, actress Jessica Walter (“Arrested Development”), have a “home in the country” in Pound Ridge that they found seven years ago after a long search. They chose the location for its proximity to the city and the fact that it wasn’t too remote.
“We really wanted privacy but we didn’t want to live in the woods because we’re not woodsmen,” he says. “We’re New Yorkers, but we wanted privacy in the woods.”
Leibman sees Saturday’s event – part of the “Insights & Revelations” series – as “an opportunity to fool around” with the role.
“Some of my choices will be absolutely wrong. That happens a lot. And should. You’re not God. You’re going to fall on your face. But I’ll try it and I’ll say ‘That’s the worst idea I’ve ever had. I’ll never do that again.’ “