NOTE: i’ve been contributing writer for GMA News Online for the past four years, and was always accorded enough respect to have edits pass through me. this is the first time in four years that my work has been so heavily — and badly — edited, with opinions not even mine, paragraphs that establish context removed.
a version of this review was published in GMA News Online on October 6, without many sections that establish my assertions about Tanghalang Pilipino’s “Der Kaufmann.” the discussion on the second and last sections, the reasons why Marco Viana’s and Ricardo Magno’s performances were great, the praise for sound and music, and Jonathan Tadioan, and lighting design, got lost in the edit.
the first phrase from the first sentence, which is the premise of the whole review, was edited out. i also did not mention a history or sociology class as a point of comparison for this play: because that is unfair to the teachers of those subjects and the play itself.
sections which were removed or heavily edited are in bold.
as of October 12, 5PM, GMA has made inactive their version of this review.
Thrice removed in “Der Kaufmann”
The adaptation of any play has to be about an amount of daring: it is hubris to imagine that one might re-tell the same story, imbue itwith more than what it originally had, without losing sight of what it was doing.
But Tanghalang Pilipino’s “Der Kaufmann” does not workwith the original “The Merchant of Venice” of William Shakespeare, as it does begin with the translation into Filipino by National Artist Rolando Tinio. This makes it twice removed by the time we watch it unfold.
Or thrice: because the decision of this adaptation was to discuss the ant-semitism that this work of Shakespeare has been read with, given the character of Shylock. It is said that we are in Nazi Germany, but that isn’t instantly recognizable or made clear. Its decision was to discuss the homosocial / sexual undertones that is usually left un-discussed in most Shakespeare adaptations.
The final product is an arresting production for sure, and one that’s funny and tragic in the right places. But the question for any adaptation at all really is: does it work at all?
Much time is spent creating the tone for “Der Kaufmann.” It begins with darkness and fear,where music and lights (finally) function as wondrous elementsthat create moments on that theater stage. A family of four, a strange man in the dark; when they leave, three friends enter the same street. They sing.
Yes, they sing. It isSolanio (Bunny Cadag), Salarino and Antonio (Marco Viaña), talking about sadness. Singing about it. Where Cadag’s Solanio takes themoment and runs with it, creating the tone for the kind of play we might be seeing, or at the very least warning us about what it would be like. He was portents of things to come (he would also steal the show whenever he was on stage). Or she was.
There is no hiding the gayness in these three portrayals, and there is no better counterpoint to it than the ultra-machismo of the police and military who appear to bully them, inciting fear and nothing else. These are the Bassanio (Ricardo Magno), Lorenzo (JV Ibesate) and Gratiano (Tracy Quila) of “Der Kaufmann,” angry and violent, dark creatures that rule these times of fear and loathing.
That is, loathing against the effeminate men who are Solanio, Salarino and Antonio; that is, loathing against the Jewish family that roams the streets at night.The fear is something that it uses to stay in control, it is in the growing voice that taunts those who are different. It was perfectly-timed, and absolutely scary.
One could see this as portents of things to come for the play, but it isn’t. One is uncertain about whether that’s a good thing.
Act One: reality shifts
It is unclear whether it was the point, but “Der Kaufmann” was light and and quiet when it needed to be, absolutely violent and unforgiving when the scenes demanded. It is also not made clear exactly where they are, but it becomes clear enough after Act One.
Which is to say that the ride was rocky for that first act, where not only context was confusing, as there was no sense right away of how this adaptation was taking from, and reconfiguring, Shakespeare’s original. At any moment when the military would arrest anyone, they would be given a piece of paper which they must read; it would be unclear what the point of this was, other than to cue thenext scene. It would also cease to be used by Act Two.
That first act established the kind of love between Bassanio and Antonio, as it did the task at hand for the former: win Portia’s hand in marriage. The need for money was the point of that conversation as it was about establishing Antonio’s devotion to Bassanio and his needs, no matter that these might hurt him. Enter Shylock the Jew (Jonathan Tadioan).
In “Der Kaufmann” homosexual love is portrayed through and through,and leaves nothing to the imagination. Bassanio and Antonio are mutually enamored with each other, and Portia (Regina de Vera) is but a requirement that Bassanio must fulfill, one that neither he nor Antonio are allowed to question. In this adaptation, the relationship between Bassanio and Antonio is also layered with the fact that the former is military official, whois scary in public but kind in private to Antonio. Those shifts are easy to recognize, a measure more of Magno’s acting than this adaptation’s telling. Without the latter’s hand in this though, the relationship between Bassanio and Antonio could look a wee bit abusive, its shifts to tenderness just adding to the confusion.
Ah, but there is Portia and what goes on in her side of the world as comic relief, and it would be the most off-putting introduction of a character that we’ve seen on a theater stage in a long time. Set on the second level of the set, it is obvious that she is being created into the more powerful voice in the narrative of this adaptation. She is in control, looking upon the world beneath her, as she waits on suitors who might win her hand in marriage given the test her father left behind. The suitors are of course all over-the-top, if only to highlight how Bassanio was exactly the one for her. Here, the point was undoubtedly comedy and nothing else.
There is a craziness to Portia here, which made her seem disjointed from the rest of the play happening before and beneath her. That is, she’s above it all, butalso she doesn’t know much of what’s going on, the context of Bassanio, the world that is being changed from below. As such by the time she and Bassanio, and Nerissa (Doray Dayao) and Gratiano marry, and those Nazi flags rise, it is all just quite … confusing.
“The Merchant ofVenice” is one of those plays that clearly has disparate but interconnected stories. “Der Kaufmann” renders those stories more disconnected than we imagine. The question then becomes if it’s ableto tie all of it together into one neat package.
Act Two: comedy versus tragedy
The daring of this adaptation is its decision to take on both Nazism and homosexualityin one fell sweep. It is also its undoing, because it is forced to let it go.
Which is to say that by the time we are in the second act of “Der Kaufmann” what we are seeing is the story of Portia and almost and practically no oneelse’s. Yes, there is the case that will bring her to the court that will decide on the case of Shylock versus Antonio, but this version of Portia takes on that moment like she’s the star of the show, and no one else. It’s as if the moment she stepped down from her stage, whatever was going on beneath her, became all hers, too.
Which was fodder for comedy for sure, where the absurdity of this Portia was in her crazy eyes, flared nostrils, the certainty in her step even as she was pretending to be someone else. That she was more comedic than serious, was counterpoint to the depth of anger and grief that is in the character of Shylock who had lost a daughter to a Christian, and now was refusing to to give the merchant Antonio any mercy.
For most this play, Shylock is portrayed as a sympathetic character, one who lives through the oppressions of the times, and who, faced with the opportunity to exact revenge, wants it to actually make a point. That this character succeeds is of course a measure of Tadioan, who is able to turn the scary Jew stereotype on its head, and re-create Shylock into victim of circumstance. The shift in the power structure is in that moment in court when Shylock faces Antonio and Bassanio; in “Der Kaufmann” this moment plays out wonderfully.
It is also in court when the over-the-top Portia makes Antonio and Bassanio even more believable as characters, something that’s also about Viaña and Magno living up to the demands of these particular adaptations. The shifts in Bassanio’s character, from angry abusive military officer, to kind and compassionate friend to Antonio is done without missing a beat by Magno. Antonio was introduced in the beginning of that play in calm quiet sadness; that Viaña believably sustains this throughout the narrative, even during that court scene, and until that end when he looks longingly at Bassanio, now back in Portia’s arms, was just brilliant.
Which one might not say about this adaptation.
The pitfalls of simplicity
The adaptation’s notes speak of a decision to engage the audience through the comedy in the Shakespeare original. This of course was a clear counterpoint to the seriousness of issues that it also wanted to tackle, from anti-semitism to homosexuality. The ease with which the comedy happens here vis a vis the difficulty of the subject matter in “DerKaufmann,” is what makes for a haphazardly-tied package.
The problem might have been the dramaturg’s premise: that there is no staging “The Merchant of Venice” today without it being imbued with the meanings that history has since afforded us, about the Jews and Nazism on the one hand, homosexuality on the other.
But that might be said of any text really, and not just Shakespeare’s. The point of adaptations shouldn’t be about whether these original texts can be staged again and again, but whether or not we create the conditions for spectators to actually understand these better, and allow these texts to contribute to contemporary thought. It is certainly more complex than merely discussing anti-semitism and anti-LGBT as distinct concepts separate from “The Merchant of Venice.”
An adaptation negotiates with the original, and chooses to tear it apart, if not stay faithful to it. Certainly “Der Kaufmann” succeeded at reconfiguring the homosocial in the Shakespeare original, by giving us a real and honest homosexual relationship between Antonio and Bassanio. But the anti-semitism? That was not turned on its head, and neither was it discussed differently here from what’s expected. It is entirely possible that it is not, and cannot be, fodder for comedy.
Because this is not a question of whether we might stage texts again and again. It’s a question of whether or not we can work with these texts and make them resonate for the present, comedy or no comedy.
“Der Kaufmann” was close enough to doing it. But not quite there.
“DerKaufmann” is a Tanghalang Pilipino production for its 27thTheater Season. It is directed by Rody Vera and Tuxqs Rutaquio, adapted by Rody Vera, Tagalog Translation by Rolando Tinio. Lighting design by John Batalla, production design by Tuxqs Rutaquio, music and sound by TJ Ramos. It runs for two more weekends: October 4 and 11 at 10AM and 3PM, October 5 at 3PM and 8PM, October 6, 12 and 13 at 3PM.