scorecardresearch Skip to main content

A despised outsider flips the script in ‘The Merchant of Venice’

Nael Nacer excels as Shylock in Igor Golyak’s innovative production at Actors’ Shakespeare Project

Nael Nacer as Shylock in the Actors' Shakespeare Project production of "The Merchant of Venice."Nile Scott Studios

There’s a certain fearlessness to Igor Golyak, and a restlessness, too. This is a director driven to reimagine and deconstruct classic texts, not just stage them.

Golyak’s conceptual audacity is on display again with his new production of “The Merchant of Venice’' at Actors’ Shakespeare Project. While the production is a dead-serious indictment of antisemitism and bigotry, Golyak approaches his goal from a dizzyingly kaleidoscopic array of angles.

He inventively mashes together elements of slapstick, circus, bits of other Shakespeare plays, the ersatz combat of pro wrestling, game shows, puppetry, open-mike night in a comedy club, schlocky sitcoms like “Batman,’’ cabaret — and “Cabaret,’’ with an ending that connects Shakespeare’s play directly with the horrors of the Holocaust.


By the end of this intriguing “Merchant’' you’ll likely be drained, a bit dazed, and glad you saw it, notwithstanding some self-indulgent and labored stretches that are both overdone and overlong.

Golyak’s goal, always, is to scramble our assumptions about a play, to challenge and sometimes unnerve the audience. Toward that end, he engages in a Pirandellian blurring of the lines in “Merchant’' between stage performance and real life.

Nael Nacer brings a mesmerizing intensity to his portrayal of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender subjected to vile antisemitism. It’s further evidence — if his last decade on Boston stages weren’t proof enough — that this remarkable actor is nearly incapable of mailing in a nanosecond of any performance.

Initially, Shylock wears a mask that is a deliberately grotesque concoction with a large, drooping nose, designed to play into the stereotypes held by the Venetians who despise him. It is only when Shylock removes his literal mask that we see and hear his true self, underscoring the fact that persecuted peoples throughout history have had to hide behind the protective shield of social disguise.


In Golyak’s interpretation, Shylock rebels against the very play of which he is a central part. At one point, his voice hoarse with rage, Nacer shouts: “Nael is my name!’’, as if in solidarity with those persecuted peoples, as if the act of performance itself were a kind of betrayal. That spark-laden tension between character and text creates what amounts to a play within a play.

For all the liberties taken with the staging, Shakespeare’s plot is left largely intact. Jesse Hinson plays Bassanio, a noble who’s in need of money so he can woo the wealthy heiress Portia (an excellent Gigi Watson). His friend Antonio (Dennis Trainor), the merchant of the title, agrees to serve as guarantor of a loan from Shylock, whom he has freely showered with verbal abuse.

Shylock agrees to make the loan, but with one condition: If not repaid by the agreed-upon date, Shylock can take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. This “Merchant’' culminates with the famous court scene, but it is staged in a methodical, slowed-down fashion that privileges gesture above word, to powerful effect.

On the question of whether “The Merchant of Venice’' itself is antisemitic, a matter that contemporary scholars have debated, Golyak makes clear that he harbors no doubts. In a director’s note in the program, he notes that the play “was used as propaganda against the Jews throughout various times in history,’’ adding: “We have to face the fact that ‘The Merchant of Venice’’ is extremely anti-Semitic, and that Shakespeare was using what many now perceive as the humanizing monologues of Shylock for comedic effect.’’


So he’s exploding the text in more than one sense, in effect working against Shakespeare and dramatizing his work at the same time. There’s nothing abstract about anti-Jewish bigotry to Golyak, who is Jewish and who told me last year that it was concerns about growing antisemitism that prompted his parents to move his family from Kiev to the Boston area when he was 11.

“Merchant’' is his latest high-impact adventure: Golyak has responded to the pandemic with one theatrical innovation after another. His usual artistic home is the Needham-based Arlekin Players Theatre, a troupe largely consisting of Russian immigrant performers, where he is the founding artistic director.

Last year’s livestreamed Arlekin production of “State vs. Natasha Banina’' drew national attention for its innovative fusion of theater and film in telling the story of a 16-year-old Russian orphan on trial for manslaughter. Then, in May of this year, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Jessica Hecht (and Nacer) starred in Golyak’s “chekhovOS/an experimental game,’’ built on the conceit that Chekhov’s characters are trapped in perpetuity within a computer operating system, vainly trying to alter the patterns of fate that define their lives.

Most of Golyak’s work has its imperfections, but all of it, now including “The Merchant of Venice,’' makes you eager to see what he’ll do next.


Play by William Shakespeare

Directed by Igor Golyak

Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project. At Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts. Through Oct. 17. Tickets $5-$45. 617-241-2200,


Don Aucoin can be reached at Follow him @GlobeAucoin.