Pardon the language, but there is no other way to describe Tanghalang Pilipino’s staging of “Der Kaufmann: Ang Negosyante ng Venecia” except to say it is a complete mindf**k.
William Shakespeare’s “The Comical History of the Merchant of Venice” has a bunch of Christians turning the tables on Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, over an unpaid debt. Portia, the female protagonist, uses legal maneuverings to defeat him, predating Elle Woods of “Legally Blonde” by centuries.
But the tables are turned in a different way in Rody Vera’s adaptation. While portraying Shylock as a more sympathetic character started as early as the 19th century, Vera transposes the action squarely onto the event that informs the identity of the Jewish people since the mid-20th century: the Holocaust.
Vera reworks Shakespeare’s 16th-century piece using the Filipino translation by National Artist for Theater and Literature Rolando Tinio, then layers it with a new concept—Nazi Germans forcing Jews and homosexuals to perform characters in the play while the tormentors play the “good” guys.
A short, chilling prologue to establish this setup, which includes a baby carriage not to be seen again, introduces the play’s first line. The titular character Antonio’s (an affecting, effective Marco Viaña) “Hindi ko alam kung bakit ang lungkot-lungkot ko,” takes on a vastly differentiated meaning that casts a dark, sinister color on the rest of the play.
Vera’s risky layering transforms the comedy into a psychological suspense-horror-drama. With a competent ensemble adeptly codirected by Vera and TP artistic director Tuxqs Rutaquio, the highly charged staging is deeply disturbing and suffocatingly intense.
Audiences during the Bard’s time may have found it clever and fun to watch young boys (women weren’t allowed to act) portray female characters who cross-dressed as men, as Portia does later on in the play. But what audiences of this production are bound to note is the cruelty and absurdity of forcing people to act in a comedy under duress.
Rutaquio’s set design, a two-tiered enclosure with wire fences, repurposed from last season’s “Walang Kukurap,” is a cold, creepy setting that twists Tanghalang Huseng Batute’s usually intimate vibe into a constricting concentration camp. John Batalla’s lighting design and TJ Ramos’ sound design add harshness and anxiety to the mix.
Audiences are constantly reminded of the Nazis’ unrelenting depravity and ruthlessness via Viaña and Jovanny Cadag (Salanio)’s terrified expressions as bearers of the inverted pink triangle.
Reduced to one of many mice being played with by cats before being devoured is the father of a Jewish family, who is forced to play Shylock. Jonathan Tadioan elevates the much maligned moneylender into a real harrowed individual, imbuing Shylock with vulnerability, turmoil and indignation.
Raquel Pareño plays the man’s wife and is coerced to parody Shylock’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. She acquiesces with a sharp performance.
When Shylock discovers the loss of his daughter and his money, in an inspired bit of stagecraft by the directors and actors, the production’s staging multiplies and magnifies the loss poignantly.
The tormentors are led by Tracy Quila, whose crazed eyes fire up a dangerous and menacing Gratiano, who does nothing remotely related to the meaning of his name (grace); and Regina de Vera, whose chilling glare captures a calculating, bossy Portia.
The sense of mercy that Portia appeals to in Shylock at the merchant’s trial is exactly what she withholds from him. What would have been lighthearted cheers at Portia’s winning argumentation now become line upon line of unrelenting humiliation and degradation directed at Shylock.
The occasional laughs (tinged with a sense of unease) come by way of Doray Dayao’s funny Nerissa, Aldo Vensilao’s Lancelot burlesquing the Führer and Lou Veloso’s (as always) spot-on comic timing as Gobbo. But here lies the genius (or insanity) of the staging: Is it okay to laugh at the funny bits?
Do we laugh because we know this is supposed to be a comedy and our brains fight to reconcile it as so, despite the new hair-raising context? Do we laugh because we know that the context, though based on real events, isn’t real and therefore easier to become desensitized to?
After a particularly harrowing scene, the nonchalance with which the Nazi actors portray the succeeding idyllic scene creates a sense of discomfort for the audience. These ambiguous reactions are elicited by the production’s staging, which highlights what has actually been embedded by Shakespeare into the lines: Portia concludes, “Nababatid kong hindi pa ganap ang inyong pagkakaunawa sa nangyaring lahat.”
Though addressed to the other characters, it functions for the audience, too. The terrors are hard to comprehend, but they’re all too real.
“Der Kaufmann: Ang Negosyante ng Venecia” runs until Oct. 13 at Tanghalang Huseng Batute, Cultural Center of the Philippines.
Discounts available for students, senior citizens, government and military employees and persons with disabilities. Contact 0917-7500107, 0918-9593949, 8321125 loc. 1620/1621. Tickets also available through Ticketworld at 8919999 or www.ticketworld.com.ph.