In conjunction with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's latest production of "Merchant of Venice," Ashland's Temple Emek Shalom is hosting a series of discussions examining Jewish perspectives on the character of Shylock.

One of Shakespeare's more vile villains is Shylock of "The Merchant of Venice." He's also Jewish, which has made the play one of the Bard's more controversial.

In conjunction with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's latest production of "Merchant," Ashland's Temple Emek Shalom is hosting a series of discussions examining Jewish perspectives on the character of Shylock.

"The importance of this series has to do with opening a dialogue within the Jewish community to discuss the implications of this play in a historic context and in this current production," said Lenny Neimark, temple member and creative consultant for "Merchant."

The festival has a long history of producing the popular comedy. "Merchant" was one of only two plays — the other being "Twelfth Night" — put on in the very first OSF season in the summer of 1935.

Over the years, Shylock has stalked the stage 13 times in Ashland, making "Merchant" one of the most-produced plays at OSF. Festival founder Angus Bowmer was the first to put on the moneylender's beard, a role he reprised with regularity.

In the play, Shylock loans money to one of the lead characters, demanding "a pound of flesh" if the funds are not repaid. The word "Shylock" has become synonymous with "loan shark." The fact that the character is Jewish, coupled with Shakespeare's immense impact on western civilization, has contributed significantly to the derogatory stereotype of Jews as greedy. The play itself was even used as Nazi propaganda, increasing its controversial history.

In Ashland, one of the most recent productions in 1991 was disturbing for many in the Jewish community, according to Neimark.

"People didn't want to see the show and some thought it shouldn't be produced," Neimark said. "What I remember most was there seemed to be deeply divided camps in the Jewish community. Some didn't want to see the play at all and others wanted to discuss it and frame it in the modern context. I remember the controversy well."

"1991 was a big controversy," Temple Emek Shalom Rabbi Marc Sirinsky confirmed. "But in 2001, the festival really reached out to the Jewish community, and they did a wonderful job of it."

Sirinsky, who has a theater background and strong ties with the festival, welcomes the chance to work with OSF on projects such as the "Merchant of Venice" talks.

Tony Heald plays Shylock in this season's production, directed by OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch. Heald is Jewish and believes that gives him additional insight into how to portray the character with honesty.

"In some ways it frees me," Heald said. "Sometimes productions of 'Merchant of Venice' overcorrect to soften the anti-Semitism. I don't think we need to, as long as Shylock is a human being who acts with human motives. The fact that he loses his way is true for individuals of all religions and cultures."

In preparing for the role, Heald has put a lot of energy into understanding Shylock's importance to the play and his specific motivations.

"His function in the play is to supply the threat. It's crucial that Shylock be a serious threat," Heald said. "The reason he's a threat is not gratuitous hatred, it's the outgrowth of endless persecution and strong feeling on Shylock's part that he's been wronged."

By examining and bringing out the origins of Shylock's behavior, his actions become the actions of a fallen man, and are not tied to his religion, Heald said.

"We're trying to do Shakespeare's play," Heald said. "There's no point in trying to distort it, but we have to be honest with it."

Heald's casting as Shylock is important on many levels, according to Sirinsky.

"Bill (Rauch) involved me in the debate on whether to do the play," Sirinsky said. "Shylock had never been played by a Jew before. That was an acknowledgment of his wanting to do the play with as much integrity as he could."

There are still concerns about the play in Ashland's Jewish community.

"There is among a few people some real trepidation and anger that it's being done," Sirinsky said. "But mainly there's a lot of respect for how the festival is approaching the play."

The Temple Emek Shalom series "Perspectives on 'The Merchant of Venice' " includes three events, with the first, "The Merchant of Venice — A Director's Perspective," being held at 7 p.m. today at the Temple, 1800 E. Main St. Rauch and Neimark will be the speakers.

The series follows up with "An Actor's Perspective" with Tony Heald at 7 p.m. June 14, and "A Historical Perspective" with Earl Showerman at 7 p.m. July 12.

"Merchant of Venice" runs at OSF June 3 through Oct. 10.

As creative consultant, Neimark walks a fine line between cultural sensitivity and being faithful to the artistic intent of Shakespeare.

"As with all Shakespeare, it is an enormously complex play," he said. "On the surface it's kind of a fairy tale, but in the middle you have this amazing character of Shylock who happens to be Jewish and plays quite the villainous role."

Neimark said he wants to help people come to grips with the complexities of the play.

"I'm hoping it will help to be more up front about these discussions ahead of time — not that we'll all agree," he said. "In part my role is to bring another set of eyes to the project with an eye to historical context."

But through the rehearsal process, Neimark has experienced firsthand the pain certain sections of the play hold for Jews.

"As a Jew, I've been very aware of the difficulty of this play, although it hasn't bothered me as much as maybe other members of the community," Neimark said. "However, during the rehearsal process I found myself deeply, deeply disturbed at times. I understand why people could be so upset."

Shakespeare members involved in the production are also very aware of the sensitive nature of the play, and the difficulty in approaching it fairly and honestly.

"For if we find ourselves eagerly seeking out the sympathetic parts in the play, heaving a sigh of relief as we cherry-pick evidence that Shakespeare was, after all, enlightened 'like us,' then we must also be brave enough to face those attitudes and reactions we prefer to think we don't share," wrote "Merchant of Venice" dramaturg Judith Rosen in the OSF 2010 Illuminations publication.

The inclusion of the discussion series is crucial in helping community members put the play in context, Sirinsky believes.

"The play is called a comedy, but I don't see it as a comedy," Sirinsky said. "It's more like a tragedy or a warning. As much as it's a story about love, it's also a story about hate. To do the play means to tell the love story but to tell the hate story as well. Hate is an abomination — the cause of much pain and distress. When you take on an issue such as hatred, you have a responsibility to go beyond the play."

Myles Murphy is an editor and reporter with the Daily Tidings. Reach him at mmurphy@dailytidings.com.