I have been extraordinarily remiss in finishing up my Stratford reviews. The season is almost over now, and there are two shows I never wrote up, both excellent, and both directed by the current Artistic Director, Antoni Cimolino. I’ll try to redress both omissions now.

The first, given a lavish production (the gorgeous set was designed by Douglas Paraschuk) on the Festival Stage, is The Merchant of Venice. I’ve written at length about the play before, and no doubt will do so again; I feel like it’s a challenge that I need to rise to. So I’ll try not to talk too much about the play itself, and focus on the production.

Cimolino has set his Merchant in Italy in 1938, at the point where Italian Fascism swerved in an explicitly anti-Semitic direction under the influence of their new German ally. Prior to the introduction of racial laws, Jews were extremely well-integrated into Italian society and, in fact, were very influential within the Fascist movement (as they were among the Communists, and among the liberal parties as well). So it was something of a shock to discover that their position was not nearly so secure as they thought it was.

That’s a peculiar setting for Merchant which presumes that the Jewish population of Venice is a distinct and separate society. Shylock’s challenge to the Venetian state is to uphold their laws neutrally, not because he deserves equal treatment, but because the prosperity of the state depends on providing it. If they do not, then aliens – like himself – who are essential to the commerce of the city will not trust Venetian justice, and take their business elsewhere. Shylock, in other words, does not demand justice as a Venetian; he demands justice explicitly as an outsider. But Jews in the 1930s were not outsiders in Italian society.

Cimolino seems to know that this is a problem for the story he needs to tell, and so he creates a world  of gabardine-clad bearded Jews (Shylock’s friend, Tubal, is one of these) that was foreign to Italy – and, indeed, to much of Western Europe, where any such would most likely be refugees from further east rather than natives. Shylock himself is much less distinctive looking – when we first meet him, he’s dressed far more soberly and less stylishly than his Christian counterparts, but he’s clean-shaven and his only explicitly Jewish accoutrement is a skullcap. But he’s of a world that is set apart. Why? Or, rather, why set your play in Italy if you want to create this sharp visual distinction between Jew and Christian?

I wondered about that question in the background even as I enjoyed the exquisite performances by the major players. Scott Wentworth creates a fully rounded character as Shylock. There’s no overt bitterness in him when he first appears – he’s tickled that Antonio needs to borrow money. When Wentworth’s Shylock says he hates Antonio chiefly for being a business competitor rather than for being an anti-Semite, we believe him – that’s how he’s behaving, like someone delighted to have a rival over a barrel. Wentworth’s Shylock is an unpleasant character – we entirely understand Jessica’s yearning to be free of his house – but he’s not obviously bent on violence until Jessica is stolen away. I’ve long thought there was a kinship between Shylock and Rigoletto, and I certainly saw that here (and I also saw a kinship between Wentworth’s Shylock and his Tevye, which was delightful to recognize).

The merchant of the play’s title is not Shylock, but Antonio, and Tom McCamus’s interpretation was delightfully understated, emphasizing his world-weariness, his inexplicable sadness without trying to ground it (in a homosexual passion for Bassanio or in anything else, really). He’s pleased to give Shylock his proposed bond not because he’s pleased to see a Jew show his true colors, nor because he’s confident in success, but because with his life on the line the whole subject has finally become interesting to him.

Portia, meanwhile, was played by Michelle Giroux, whom I usual love best in traditionally comic roles (she was a perfect Elvira in Blithe Spirit). She certainly knows how to wear the gorgeous gowns Charlotte Dean has built for her, and her turn as the legal advisor to the court, disguised as a young man, felt like it drew on screwball cross-dressing from the ’30s and ’40s. But Portia is a complicated and ambiguous figure in the drama, and I got the feeling that Cimolino was using her as a vehicle to express his answer to the question I posed above.

Here’s the thing: Merchant is often turned into a play about (and against) anti-Semitism, and I frequently find that doesn’t work, for ideological and structural reasons. The ideological reason is that Shylock does in fact descend into outright embodiment of the most terrifying anti-Semitic caricatures. He plans to murder a Christian, in an open courtroom, even sharpening his knife for everyone to see. So, implicitly, making this a play about anti-Semitism confirms that caricature – because you can’t excuse Shylock’s behavior as having been caused by anti-Semitism without implying that his behavior requires explanation.

The structural reason is that it makes the two parts of the play, the Shylock plot and the courtship of Portia by Bassanio, clash badly; as Harold Bloom put it, Shylock’s entry into the drama feels like an Arthur Miller hero stumbling into a Cole Porter musical. A solution to this problem, which I’ve seen tried more than once, is to make the romance as ugly as possible – to make Bassanio and Lorenzo transparent gold-diggers, Portia a frightful snob, etc. This, however, just makes the play thoroughly unpleasant.

So I am very pleased that Cimolino did not go that route. Shylock is up to some tricks from the first, but he seeks Antonio’s life primarily because of the loss of his daughter. He’s a human being, who has suffered a profound human wrong, and it is this human loss that, emotionally, he is compelled to avenge in blood. Portia is not a dreadful snob; she’s a somewhat clueless heiress (she doesn’t seem to notice her lady’s maid is black when she makes comments about the King of Morocco’s complexion), but when she errs she repents quickly, and she seems genuinely taken with Bassanio. And, more to the point, Bassanio (Tyrell Crews) is a completely sincere lover – and a sincere friend to Antonio. It’s impossible not to be on his side. For that matter, the roustabout casual bigot Gratiano (Jonathan Goad) is a charming fellow you can’t help liking.

Even Lorenzo, whose love for Jessica reads as deeply suspect to me on the page, is played (by Tyrone Savage) in this production as completely sincere. There’s a bit, late in the play, when Lorenzo and Jessica are up late in Portia’s mansion, when Jessica and Lorenzo trade classical allusions – in such a night did so and so do such and such with so and so – running through pairs of storied lovers. But the pairings are all disastrous – Troilus and Cressida, Pyramus and Thisbe, Dido and Aeneas. I’ve come to expect that this scene will be played as one of suppressed marital discord bursting forth unbidden, but these lovers played it as if ignorant of the portent of their own allusions.

And then Lorenzo turns on the radio. Jessica (lovely newcomer Sara Farb) has her line about never being merry when she hears sweet music, which is usually a throwaway (the line may be an allusion to her Jewishness, by the way – she’s not attuned to the music of the spheres – or may be an indication that her – and Shylock’s – Jewishness are intended actually to represent Puritanism, a religious persuasion that actually mattered in Shakespeare’s England; neither of these possible meanings are playable in a modern production, of course). But in this production it had a novel resonance. When Lorenzo puts on the radio, he can’t seem to avoid tuning in to stations broadcasting Fascist and Nazi propaganda speeches.

This struck many reviewers as a ham-handed choice, but I don’t agree; I actually think it was subtle – perhaps too subtle to be properly understood. You see, if Lorenzo and Bassanio are sincere, then why, exactly, isn’t the ending a basically happy one? Which is to say, why isn’t conversion the right answer – at a minimum, the right answer for Jessica, if not for Shylock who has to be forced to it? One answer comes, plainly and clearly, from the setting: 1938.

Which is to say: Cimolino deliberately didn’t depict the situation of the Jews of Italy in 1938 accurately. He doesn’t depict a community fully integrated into Italian life that is suddenly and violently expelled. Instead, he depicts an allegory of assimilation, achieved through force in Shylock’s case, through sincere love in Jessica’s. That requires starting from a position of distance; hence the gabardine. But we know, because this is 1938, that what is structurally a happy ending – and Merchant is, structurally, a comedy – cannot be happy. It’s not that the anti-Semitism aimed at Shylock is going to cause the Holocaust. It’s that the coming Holocaust is going to reveal as a fantasy genteel society’s notions of how the Jewish “problem” might readily be “solved” – notions that had, in fact, worked perfectly well in Italy prior to 1938.

Portia is the vehicle for that realization. She recognizes that violence has been done to Shylock (even if he really did ask for it), and that this violence portends more violence. And when she (miraculously) restores Antonio’s ships to him, she’s interrupted by the sound of an air-raid siren. Portia often comes off as more than merely human, and here she seems to expand to represent a certain class and spirit, an aristocracy still barely capable of engineering the desired happy ending for everyone they care about (which very much includes Jessica). A class and spirit about to be obliterated by forces they don’t have a prayer of appeasing.

The Merchant of Venice plays on Stratford’s Festival Stage through October 18th.