A&E » Arts

‘Who am I’ — Shylock asks tough questions



WHAT: Shylock, featuring David Berner


WHEN: Aug. 31-Sept. 1, 8 p.m.

TICKETS: $20/adult, $10/student, call 604-935-8410

From his first reading of the script, David Berner knew he had to play the role.

Shylock is a one man play about a Jewish actor who finds himself under fire by his own community for his portrayal of one of the most notorious Jew’s in literature. Perhaps it was because of Berner’s own notorious reputation as an outspoken radio talk show host or because Berner himself is Jewish, whatever the case, the Vancouver actor felt instantly connected to the play.

"This script is wonderful. It has a ton of material in it. It’s very powerful emotionally. I knew that in doing it I would have to bare my own soul," says Berner.

The play is set up around Berner’s character, actor Jon Davies, who is being bombarded with questions after a run of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice has been indefinitely cancelled. The woman to whom Davies is responding, Marcia T. Berman, accuses him and the play of anti-Semitism. The twist to the plot is that Davies is short for Davidovitch, Jewish through and through.

"The play isn’t just a lecture though. It’s made more interesting by this guy who doesn’t even realize he’s struggling with his own identity," Berner points out.

Berner’s own spiritual and Jewish identity was affected during a run of Shylock in Vancouver. Coincidentally, he was asked to perform the role of Shylock in a separate production of Merchant of Venice . Entering that controversial role opened his eyes and his acting range when he returned to the one man play.

"After the show that night, the director (of Shylock ) and his wife came back stage and both of them were weeping, saying ‘My god, you’ve always done it wonderfully, but what was that? Where did that come from?’ I can’t explain it. It was freakishly, overwhelmingly powerful. Playing the role of Shylock in Merchant was a very upsetting experience as an actor and as a Jewish man. It’s a horrible damn thing. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it."

Which is really what Shylock is all about. What function does art play in society? What responsibility does it have to be politically correct? Ironically, Shylock is being both praised and condemned. It won second prize in the 1994 Canadian National One Act competition, but yet a proposed run in Edmonton was cancelled because it was deemed too controversial. Life imitating art.

"After one performance, we had a talk-back session with the audience. This woman came right up to the stage and said ‘I am Marcia T. Berman. I am that woman. And I agree with her. Merchant is a horrible play. The portrayal of Shylock is terrible and evil.’ We’re all stuck with the issue of identity. We’re all stuck with the question of ‘Who am I?’ And we all have various levels of comfort around that question. If someone starts pointing a finger at an area that’s particularly sensitive, it gets sore. That’s what this play does. It pokes. It prods. It provokes."

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