Growing up in the Beth Jacob congregation, Rivka Levin struggled academically until her mother insisted that she try out for Teen Theater at the JCC. Now the actress has carved out a brilliant niche, including roles like the nurse in “Romeo and Juliet” and performing and serving as music director for the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse’s “A Christmas Carol” for the past 17 years.
Levin, who was featured in the Aug. 8 edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for her role as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” at Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse, has come a long way since her modest start. The play sticks largely to the original, except for one not-so-minor change: it was performed by an all-female cast.
“Merchant,” which is notorious for its negative representation of Jews, “doesn’t talk so much about the Jews of the time as it does the concept in Christian minds of what a Jew was,” says Levin. “Written shortly after Marlowe’s ‘The Jew of Malta,’ in which the Jew is presented as an absolute caricature of a mustache-twirling villain, Shakespeare’s play asks the audience to acknowledge Shylock as being human as a result of the treatment he’s received, not an ingrained trait. A Jew is merely a human, just like any other … and what he becomes as a result of how he is treated is no different than others.”
The production, which ran for three weekends for a total of 12 performances, gave Levin only three weeks to prepare. Quickly learning lines is a skill, and Levin says she uses “mnemonic devices, especially when my responses are similar to other lines. In the courtroom scene, I say many lines along the theme of ‘Most noble judge; excellent judge; O wise and upright judge.’ A line preceding one of those mentions a knife. That ‘n’ sound precedes my line ‘Most noble judge.’ Sometimes I create a slideshow of images like Macbeth’s witch’s ‘Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf, witches mummy, maw and gulf of the ravined salt sea shark.’”
Levin spoke to the AJT about the all-female production, her strangest role and more.
AJT: Was this indeed a role of a lifetime?
Levin: It’s a great role because Shylock is a complex character … impatient, stubborn and not always warm, but with a wry sense of humor and deep feelings. He is vulnerable, yet vengeful and human. Much of my life has been spent being the only Jew in various circles, often encountering misperceptions about my religion and culture. To have the opportunity to speak some of this text — “Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food … warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?” — particularly in this specific theater, in which I look into the audience’s eyes, was an extremely powerful experience for me. To be able to speak “as a Jew” to the audience, not just as a character, was profound.
AJT: Expound on your costuming.
Levin: I wear only enough makeup to distinguish my features under the lights and keep it fairly minimal, pulling my hair back to give a nod toward the maleness. My costume begins with a red hat, which was the “yellow star” of the time in Venice; Jews were required to wear a red hat. I wear a long-sleeved white poet’s blouse under a floor-length black robe with full sleeves, much like a graduation robe. I have a gold-and-brown brocade sash, and wear a thick, black sleeveless outer robe over this ensemble. Yes, it’s very hot.
AJT: How did you handle the gender reversal?
Levin: I didn’t adjust my mindset, but adjusted body language, taking one signature posture from my uncle, which helped me find other ways of toning down my femininity. I think it very much affected the moments of softness and sorrow that I gave this character. The lines are easily read as “angry,” but there are many colors of anger: disappointment, frustration, masked sadness, exasperation, world-weariness. I think women are sometimes better at expressing the nuances of emotion.
Strangest role: Starring as a hoop-skirted harpist in rapper Killer Mike’s show “Trigger Warning” on Netflix.
In her spare time: Levin sews costumes for the Georgia Renaissance Festival, where she has appeared for the last 27 seasons.
Dream future roles: Desiree in “A Little Night Music,” “Carmen” and Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing.”
- Arts and Culture
- Marcia Caller Jaffe
- Beth Jacob
- Rivka Levin
- Teen Theater
- Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse
- A Christmas Carol
- Atlanta Journal Constitution
- The Merchant of Venice
- Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse
- The Jew of Malta
- Killer Mike
- Trigger Warning
- Georgia Renaissance Festival
- A Little Night Music
- Much Ado About Nothing