“Shylock” Engages on Many Levels in Capital Region Premiere at Bridge Street Theatre
“Shylock,” a one-man show starring the incandescent Steven Patterson by Gareth Armstrong, is an excellent exploration of the title character in Shakespeare’s play “The Merchant of Venice” but oh, so much more. It is a fascinating education on the history of Jews and antisemitism across Europe, representation of Jewish characters in Shakespeare’s time and the meaning behind Shakespeare’s use of these characters at this time.
The play is told by the only other Jewish man in Shakespeare’s canon, Tubal, who shares as he pityingly recounts “half a scene, 8 lines” with Shylock. It’s a deep dive into theater, hatred and survival hosted by a forgotten man. In the spirit of the play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern…” Tubal is Shylock’s “best friend…his only friend” which in Steven Patterson’s extraordinary, indefatigable performance keeps your mind and heart enrapt throughout.
Steven Patterson has said he has based his performance on the idea a tummler. Masters of ceremony and activities directors who could always be counted on for a game, a joke or some diversion to occupy your mind tummlers were guest services in the Catskills Borsch Belt of the last mid-century. Patterson has a pair of trunks, a coat rack, and a desk onstage to assist him in retrieving props and costume pieces; he also has a splendid raked circle of planks evoking Shakespeare’s “wooden O.” He plays dozens of characters, sometimes with the assistance of a costume piece or an expertly deployed lighting effect (lighting and set designed by his husband, John Sowle).
His telling of this story ranges from the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1200 to the playing of several scenes from Shakespeare’s play. There are scenes and monologues from “The Merchant of Venice” with Patterson playing Tubal, Shylock and Portia but also a thrilling monologue from Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta.” Patterson not only changes characters convincingly in a flash, he can change the temperature in the room.
The breadth and scope of this story is truly impressive. I took pages of notes, there was so much historical detail. I’m not sure that there’s as much of a play here, but it is certainly a thoroughly engrossing theatrical evening. I asked myself afterward what the central question of the drama is, what are we working out? Was Shylock a villain and if so, why? “If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” I certainly got a much fuller appreciation for Shylock, Shakespeare, “The Merchant of Venice” and the history of Jews in Europe.
This is the third solo performance I’ve seen of Patterson’s in the past four years after “The Epic of Gilgamesh” and “Frankenstein” which in itself is rather remarkable but with each show, I am only more and more eager to see what’s next. This protean actor does amazing work.
Roxanne Fay did the curtain speech. sShe has her own solo performance based on a Shakespearean character, Lady Macbeth, called “Thrice to Mine” which is alternating with “Shylock” thru this Sunday. She met Steven Patterson as stage manager when he first worked on “Shylock,” directed by the author twelve years ago at Orlando Shakespeare Festival. She has performed at Bridge Street several times to great effect, especially in last season’s “Leni” and back in 2017’s “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds.” I have one opportunity to see her show this weekend and I hope the stars align.