Jean Cocteau Repertory will tackle one of Shakespeare's stickiest plays Oct. 20, when it officially opens its The Merchant of Venice. (Previews began Oct. 6.) The drama, about friendship and love, boasts one of the Bard's most famous — or infamous (depending on your point of view) — characters, the Jewish moneylender Shylock. The alternately villainous and humane portrait of Shylock, as well as the flagrant anti semitism he suffered throughout the play, have confounded many a director, actor and company for years.
According to director Eve Adamson, Cocteau Rep has approached the problem of Shylock by casting company stalwart Harris Berlinsky in the role. Berlinsky, a jolly and amiable figure, will make for "one of the most benign Shylocks in New York theatre history," according to Adamson. Berlinsky will apparently not play up the anger of the character — who loses his fortune and daughter during the play — but fashion him simply as "a guy in a play" who must use "charm and humor" to preserve his position in society.
Elise Stone will play the pampered heiress Portia, and Craig Smith is Antonio, the titular merchant.
The Merchant of Venice will run through Dec. 14.
The Jean Cocteau is a long-standing feature of the Off-Off-Broadway scene, boasting a regular company and a repertory system in which at least two plays are being offered at the same time. The troupe is ensconced in the Bouwerie Lane Theatre, part of a former bank. Rarely spotlighted in the press, the Cocteau soldiers on year after year, staging classics from Buchner and Brecht (often with Eric Bentley translations) to Kaufman and Stoppard. Frequenters of the Cocteau are familiar with the work of the crusty, authoritarian Smith, the sensual, dark-eyed Stone and the wistful, whimsical Berlinsky, whose years with the company can now be counted in decades. Smith and Stone are husband and wife.
* The Jean Cocteau Rep's production of Marc Blitzstein's searing, but seldom-seen musical, The Cradle Will Rock, received more press attention that the small Bowery theatre is typically accustomed to, and, as a result, the show has been extended a month. It isn't unusual for the Off-Off-Broadway company to extend shows that are well-received.
Opening of Aug. 18, Cradle was due to shutter on Oct. 19. It will now play the additional dates of Oct. 27-29 and Nov. 1-2, 10-12, and 15-16.
This is the first major New York City revival of the work in many years, and certainly the first since Tim Robbins' 1999 film, "Cradle Will Rock," revived interest in the show. The show will also be the opening attraction of the Cocteau's 30th anniversary season.
David Fuller directs a cast of Cocteau stalwarts, including Craig Smith, Harris Berlinsky, Elise Stone. Also in the cast are Jason Crowl, Christopher Black, Angela Madden, Jolie Garrett, Tim Deak, Michael Sarabian, Kyra Himmelbaum, Taylor Bowyer and Jennifer Herzog.
Fuller is in his second year as the theatre's artistic director.
The 1937 production of The Cradle Will Rock, which was directed by a young Orson Welles, is one of the few politically-charged theatrical events in U.S. history. Backed by the government's Federal Theater Project, the leftist, satiric musical was set to open at the Maxine Elliot Theatre on June 16, but its funds were suddenly cut and the theatre shut by a Communism-fearing Congress. In reaction, Welles and producer John Houseman instantly transferred the musical to the Venice Theatre 20 blocks away, where the cast performed the work from the audience to keep within union rules. Blitzstein played the piano on stage, while one other musician, an accordionist, joined him from the stalls.
Welles and Houseman's impetuous action probably precipitated the death of the FTP several months later. The Mercury Theatre -- the group Welles and Houseman formed shortly afterwards -- later revived The Cradle Will Rock and took it on a tour of the nation, where it had middling commercial success.
Tim Robbins' film -- which took its name by lopping the "The" off the Blitzstein title -- spun many storylines, but focused on the famous FTP production. Playing Welles as a loutish drunkard in the film was Scottish actor Angus MacFadyen, while Cary Elwes played Houseman. Hank Azaria was Blitzstein, John Turturro was actor Aldo Silvano and theatre actress Cherry Jones played Hallie Flanagan, who fights for the life of the WPA Theatre before Congress.
As for the rest of the Cocteau season, it's a mix of JCR favorites, including Shakespeare, Stoppard and Moliere. The schedule runs as follows:
• Night and Day by Tom Stoppard, Dec. 1, 2000-Feb. 22, 2001, directed by Earnest Johns
• The Country Girl by Clifford Odets, Feb. 9-April 1, 2001, directed by David Fuller
• The Misanthrope by Moliere, April 6-May 27, 2001, directed by Rod Lucas
• A sixth play to be announced
Tickets are $24-$30. The Jean Cocteau is located at 330 Bowery in Manhattan. For more information, call (212) 677-0060.
--By Robert Simonson