The Jew of Malta
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 4, 2007
Rather had I, a Jew, be hated thus,
Than pitied in a Christian poverty;
For I can see no fruits in all their faith...
They say we are a scatter'd nation:
I cannot tell, but we have scrambled up
More wealth by far than those that brag of faith.
There's Kirriah Jairim, the great Jew of Greece,
Obed in Bairseth, Nones in Portugal,
Myself in Malta, some in Italy,
Many in France, and wealthy every one;
Ay, wealthier far than any Christian.
So says Barabas, the title character of Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, in the very first scene of the play: he doesn't require a Mel Gibson to spout the anti-Semitic party line, taking clear pleasure in perpetuating a notorious and damaging stereotype all on his own. Barabas is supremely villainous, evil if you like: there's a scene where he tempts two men of the cloth to take arms against one another in which you'd swear he might be Satan himself.
Now, if our world didn't contain literally millions of people who believe that Barabas's speech above is the solemn truth, it might be amusing to make fun of a play like The Jew of Malta. This, alas, is what director David Herskovits has opted to do in Theatre for a New Audience's current revival of this late 16th century play; it's being presented in repertory with Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, "giving our audiences [according to the promotional materials] a rare opportunity to discover for themselves the similarities and differences in the two authors' approaches." To which I am compelled to rebut: Herskovits's cartoony view of Marlowe leaves little room for interpretation by the audience. TFANA proves here that The Jew of Malta is a lousy play, ripe for parody and in no way the equal of Shakespeare's Merchant. Having proved that, there seems little point to the exercise; and though one may argue that this production feels ripe and crowd-pleasing in its postmodern burlesque of revenge tragedy conventions, one should acknowledge that what's made of the play here isn't much different from what's been made of hoary theatrics from The Producers to Gilligan's Island and back again.
The Jew of Malta is an amoral, greedy merchant who values money and his own hide above all else. In the course of an action-packed five acts, he persuades his daughter to pretend to be a nun so she can steal back some treasure that was confiscated; tricks his daughter's lover into fighting a duel with another man, engineering the deaths of both; mass-murders a house full of nuns; poisons his own (and only) trusted servant; and much more. I assume that Marlowe (or Marlowe and Heywood; apparently there's some question as the the authorship of the piece) intended for Barabas to be taken at face value as a near-demonic bad guy, not that differently from the way "terrorists" often get portrayed in films and on TV nowadays. But the plotting is so over-the-top that it's hard to take Barabas seriously in 2007—he even fakes his own death, at one point—and Herskovits takes advantage of this to have leading man F. Murray Abraham portray him as a campy Batman-style villain.
The rest of the cast take their cue from this treatment, rendering their characters as broad caricatures and looking for the naughty joke in the most innocent of lines. Gimmicky touches, such as having stage managers in jeans and headsets bring pivotal props onto the stage, or having Arnie Burton (as the slave Ithamore) hand the rope around his neck to an audience member, further remove us from whatever the play might actually be about. David Zinn's brightly colored, exaggerated costumes and even John Lee Beatty's slightly jokey set do the same.
In the end, whatever we might be able to conclude about Marlowe's anti-Semitism (or, probably more importantly, the prevailing anti-Semitism of his time and our own) is lost to the show's unchecked desire to give its audience a good time, which seems to be entirely at odds with TFANA's stated objective in mounting The Jew of Malta in the first place. On those terms, if not on all others, this revival is a sad failure.