In only its second effort, the Shakespeare-Marlowe Festival scored a smashing success Thursday night, but the playwright would have jumped with surprise if he had been there. The Loeb reading of The Jew of Malta is to Marlowe's play as as the film Dr. Strangelove is to the book from which it came, Red Alert. Quite correctly wary of a straight interpretation of the script, and obviously goaded on by a receptive audience, Dean Gitter, director Paul Schmidt, and an excellent cast, turn the tragi-comedy into a masterful and highly enjoyable farce.
The first sign of what modern minds have wrought comes in the opening moments. In a short prologue, Machiavelli (played by Schmidt) introduces Gitter as Barabas, the wily Jew. An appearance by the "odious" Italian was usually enough to terrify Elizabethans for the evening. But let Schmidt merely change one word in the script, let him say "I come not to read a lecture here in Cambridge," and Presto! The audence laughs and the fun begins.
In highlighting the plays ribaldry and underplaying Barabas' vengeful character, Schmidt chose the proper touch, for The Jew of Malta was quite distinctly written for an Elizabethan audience. When Marlowe so immediately linked Barabas with Machiavelli, he captured both the notoriety of The Prince and the legend of the Jew in England. Barabas was a complete steretoype, done with all of Marlowe's unbelievable extravagance. Sacrificing even his daughter to his lust for money and revenge, Barabas embodied such a total immorality that the Elizabethans could only have flinched in fear of his craft.
Machiavelli and the typical Jewish usurer convey little to a modern audience, however, and the play needs a touch of the ham to be saved from mediocrity. The actors play slapstick so well that the production's one weak moment is an off-spring of their own success. In the last act, Barabas gets caught in his own plot and sinks to a painful death in a "deep pit past recovery." His wile has betrayed him, and his snarling vengeance ("Damn'd Christians, dogs, and Turkish Infidels,") echoes across the stage. Having avoided the serious side of Barabas' treachery until the end, however, Gitter's curse suffers from its incongruity. The audience, which previously jumped at every funny line in the play, seems perplexed by the Jew's sudden viciousness.
But let this only be testimony to the mastery of Gitter's performance. The role of Barabas comprises nearly half of the play's lines, and Gitter carries the weight superbly. Slightly hunched, his mustache twitching with delight at his guile, Gitter simply oozes charm, duplicity and cunning. At the prospect of murder, his eyebrows wiggle and his voice rises to an ecstatic pitch. He combines the avariciousness of a Jewish pawn-shop broker with the greasiness of a Carmine DeSapio.
The rest of the cast, as well as Schmidt's direction and David Levine's lighting, is equally as deft. David Rittenhouse, playing Ferneze, the Governor of Malta, and Francis Gitter as the Jew's daughter, display a remarkable intensity in their more straight-forward roles. Charles Degelman, who plays the scheming Turkish slave Ithamore, could have looked evil just by raising his eyebrows and shifting his huge jaw into a sneer. Only Neal Johnston as Pilia-borza seemed amateurish, but that was as much due to his Ralph Guglielmi accent as to his performance.
Perhaps most typical of the performance was the delightful background music. Had the production been done with Elizabethan overtones, the unique rhythms might have seemed even more macabre than Barabas' horrible, murdering vengeance. As it is, the music jumps and thumps in fanciful accompaniment to the play. Following each murder after the intermission, the music descends a scale with loud bangs, as if Charlie Chaplin's body is bouncing down a stair-case. Marlowe may not have intended the effect, but it makes for wonderful entertainment.