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"Jews & Christians in the End Zone" by Arthur Sainer
Modern drama offers a "dissident view"
of the characters of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice"

Pow Wow
Greg Petroff as Shylock; Karen Grenke as his daughter, Jessica  

January 20 to February 6
Theater for the New City (Cino Theater), 155 First Avenue (at East Tenth Street)
Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:30 pm, Sundays at 3:00 and 8:30 pm.
Presented by Theater for the New City, Crystal Field, Artistic Director
$10/tdf; box office/audience info (212) 254-1109
runs 90 minutes
With Shylock's fate stuck in his craw, playwright Arthur Sainer, himself a devout--if modern--Jew, set out to re-invent the story of "The Merchant of Venice." What came out was "Jews & Christians in the End Zone," a story from a modern Jewish perspective of prejudice, racism, tested faith and a daughter who abandons her father for the Christian world and who, in the end, must try to find her way back. Directed by Tanya Kane-Parry, the play will be presented January 20 to February 6 by Theater for the New City. TNC commissioned the play and has been Mr. Sainer's principal theatrical home since his varied and much-acclaimed avant-garde epic plays of the 1970s.

Employing his own heightened and formalized form of modern prose dialogue, together with minimal dips into Shakespeare's text, Mr. Sainer uses the characters and setting of Shakespeare's comedy to spin a complex story haunted by the modern Jews' memories of persecution and nightmares of assimilation. Sainer eliminates the subplots and compresses the story of Shylock's downfall in order to embellish the character and spiritual story of Shylock's daughter, Jessica. Her marriage to Lorenzo, a Venetian artist, and her subsequent abandonment of her faith are undeveloped in Shakespeare's play but fully-drawn in Sainer's. In its second half, "Jews & Christians in the End Zone" takes a turn and becomes Jessica's story. She is portrayed as a disloyal daughter, buffeted by Venice's multi-religious society and trying to bridge its two worlds. No sooner has she captured Lorenzo, who represents the "modern Renaissance man," and disgraced her father by doing so, than she starts the soul-testing process all errant Jews face: finding her way back home. In a poignant final image, that process is expressed symbolically by her pulling herself across the stage on a series of knotted ropes, suggesting the knotted fringe of the Tsitsi, or prayer shawl.

The author has written: "I wrote 'Jews and Christians in the End Zone,' at least in part, because I was fed up with some of Shakespeare's Christians, and I wasn't exactly overjoyed with Shylock's obsequiousness, with his pleading that Jews also bleed. Hell, don't mice and squirrels bleed, and should we make them citizens of Venice?" He adds, "I thought it might be exhilarating if someone slapped Portia's face on the heels of her self-satisfied quality of mercy lecture. But we Jews are taught forgiveness, even if it doesn't help one's play. Jesus, a noble Jew in his own right, taught us about turning the other cheek; he had an early sense of the virtues of non-violence. So do I want my characters to redeem themselves in the criminal atmosphere of Renaissance Venice? At any rate, I've created some tense Jews and Christians, hopefully looked at Jewish life in a way that Shakespeare never had the opportunity to."

The director's notes summarize the play as a study of faith: searching for it (as in Antonio, who trusted God to bring his merchant ships home safely to a variety of ports--their simultaneous sinking placed him in the moneylender's hands), keeping it (as in Shylock, who clings devotedly to his Jewishness) and losing it (as in Jessica).

The atmosphere of the set by Rona Taylor and lighting by Ben Kato will suggest a city of public places in which there is no privacy--where you are always being watched by others, and if you are seen with Shylock, it is because you are broke and borrowing. The play will be staged amid "little bridges" and ramps, indicating the canals, with ample use of skateboards and rollerblades to simulate people gliding by on the water. Costumes will loosely simulate the period.

The plays of Arthur Sainer are deeply poetic, often taking up traditional themes with modernist and revolutionary images. Theater for the New City has produced a series of his plays including "Boat Sun Cavern," "The Children's Army is Late," "Images of the Coming Dead" and "After the Baal Shem Tov." Two acting Obies were awarded to performers in Sainer's plays at TNC: to Maurice Blanc for "The Celebration: Jooz/Guns/Movies/the Abyss" and to Crystal Field for "Day Old Bread: the Worst Good Time I Ever Had." His plays have also been presented by La MaMa, Playwrights Horizons, Cubiculo, Theater Genesis and theaters around the country including the Firehouse in Minneapolis, the Odyssey in Los Angeles and the Thurber Theatre in Columbus, Ohio. He has also written the TV plays "A Man Loses His Dog More or Less," "1 Piece Smash" and "The Dark Side of the Moon." For two decades he was a drama critic for the Village Voice and the paper's book editor in the early '60s. His books include "Zero Dances: A Biography of Zero Mostel," which was published this year, "The New Radical Theater Notebook" (1997), "The Radical Theater Notebook" and "The Sleepwalker and the Assassin."

Director/choreographer Tanya Kane-Parry is also an accomplished choreographer and heads the Shumka Dance/theater Company. She recently staged her own play at the Ontological, "Gun in Mouth, Pen in Hand (Suicides and the Messages Left Behind)." She directed Richard Foreman's "The Cure" in the first Foreman festival at Nada three years ago and received approving notices for her production of "The Trojan Women" at Westside Rep.

The cast includes Greg Petroff as Shylock, Karen Grenke as Jessica, Bruce Barton as Antonio, Celeste Ciulla as Portia, David Vining as Lorenzo and Andrew Hurley as Bassanio. The cast also includes Seana Lee Wyman and Nina Zavarin. This play received a support grant from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. [NYTW]

Related article: About Theater for the New City.

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