The Merchant of Venice is listed as a comedy, but known as a “problem play,” in which the central problem is racism. In a company whose motto is “Love is the strongest choice,” it has proven very difficult to capture racial and religious hatred of the most brutal and unrelenting nature.
As an actor playing one of the most vicious characters in the piece, I’ve been particularly challenged in three ways:
- I don’t want the audience, specifically my family and friends, to associate me with this behavior. This is a horrible failure for me as an actor, because of course we’re not supposed to care about what the audience thinks of us at all; but here at Sweet Tea, the audience is all around us. We speak to them, make eye contact, and engage. It’s hard not to care, because it’s impossible to block out.
- I don’t want my cast mates to think I’m enjoying this behavior, or that I’m good at it. We bring ideas and choices to rehearsal every day. But with this piece, I worry that an idea I bring will be considered too outrageous, too upsetting, too far. There’s little worse than the look on a scene partner’s face that says, “I can’t believe she went there.” It’s also terribly difficult to look someone you like and respect in the eye while spitting in their face and treating them like an animal.
- I don’t want the hate to follow me home. In order to prepare a role, we spend hours with the text – not just memorizing it, but analyzing every word. We work on posture and gesture and gait and mannerisms. We develop ideas about how our characters understand and interact with the world. In order to do that for The Merchant of Venice, I have to spend a lot of time at home with the darkest, angriest, most feared and fearful thoughts. It’s the most unpleasant work I’ve done.
But plays express things that need expressing, and The Merchant of Venice is frighteningly relevant to today’s world. In preparing this role I’ve watched hours of YouTube footage of Trump rallies and MRA events, and the language, adjusted to the modern day, is identical. We are still living in this world; the play is a mirror. But that won’t make sense unless the audience believes that we are capable of deadly violence against a Jew, and he against a Christian. So our ideas and actions must go all the way.
Finally, though, this is a play in which you can’t see the love – the sacrifice one friend makes for another, a father’s care for his daughter, the help a servant gives a member of a troubled household, and particularly the love between a Jewish girl and a Christian boy – without understanding the hate. So, I console myself, the stronger the hate, the stronger the love. Because at Sweet Tea Shakespeare, love will always be the strongest choice.
A Sweet Fourth Friday
I always look forward to Fourth Friday in the spring: the weather is nice, the sun is up late into the evening, and a diverse array of people stroll the streets of downtown in search of something a little different from the usual.
We certainly tried to provide that at the STS booth this past Friday. In addition to exhorting people to spin our trusty wheel of Shakespearean insults and sharing details of our upcoming summer productions (The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure—reserve your tickets now!), we held our scheduled music rehearsal on the sidewalk of Hay Street to offer a preview of the delights that await the audience for MoV.
Early on, when visitors were sparse, we played some well-loved songs from past shows. If you saw The Cherry Orchard, The Tempest, Bottom’s Dream, or HamLIT, chances are you heard something familiar. Then, as the crowd grew, we moved on to the songs that we’ve been working on for the last few weeks—the hand-clapping, foot-stomping, folky jams that you expect from the WoCo as well as our take on songs by Rihanna, Drake, and Prince.
It was joyful. It was fun. We saw old friends and frequent audience members alongside people who had never heard of Sweet Tea Shakespeare. One of my former students who happened by sang harmony on a song that he knew, and it reminded me just how accessible and inviting this company is. We welcome you to come see us, to sing with us, and to enjoy a lovely late-spring evening in each other’s company.
This, being my first play with Sweet Tea, I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but so far it has been a very rewarding experience. I’ve met some interesting and nice people and I’m learning a lot. I’m also being challenged in many different ways. This is the first time I’ll have an audience on more than one side of me. I’ll have to put in that extra effort to make sure that I give everyone around me equal attention while still giving my character purpose to do so. This is also, the first time I’ve had to perform musical numbers. Singing is hard for me but I love doing it and I keep trying to improve. There are a lot of things I’ve had to get used to. Sweet Tea Shakespeare is hard work. We are entertaining our guests from the time they walk through the door and even during intermission. I feel like no one involved an STS production has a small part.
Nathan Pearce: Master of Dispatch (Solanio, Old Gobbo)
Playing more than character can be a challenge, especially when accomplishing this feat in Shakespeare. But, fortunately, I’ve had the pleasure of sharing the stage with some extremely talented actors. Two people in particular have been essential in creating two completely different roles.
Michael Thrash, who plays Salarino to my Solanio, has been a joy to work with. Whether we are telling the audience about events that have happened offstage using puppets or having serious moments talking about our dear friend Antonio, Michael has made each scene extremely easy to play with.
Izzy Burger, who is diving into Sweet Tea for the first time, plays my son Launcelet and makes her self right at home in this hilarious role. While I’m only in one scene with her, it’s probably one of my favorites. We’ve had a blast making each laugh, as well as on-lookers. I can only hope that this isn’t the only time we will be working together (actually, I already know that we will be sharing the stage again in July’s Measure for Measure).
Comedy is all about timing. With two amazing actors to work off of, there is never a worry that our time isn’t being well spent.
From Reba Fox, who plays Jessica in The Merchant of Venice…
Me being a senior in High School and being apart of Sweet Tea is a really incredible thing. For example: acing a test on Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice without having to study was pretty nice. All I had to do was work on the play and my character and pay attention in rehearsals which was pretty cool. So Sweet Tea helps High Schoolers in multiple ways.
Jessica is a really interesting character. Would you leave behind the only life you knew to be with someone who fell in love with by meeting them only once? Well Jessica does. When you first meet her, I feel like you think she is just some teenager who wants what she wants because she wants it. However, the more you see her, the more you see her reasons behind what she does. You see that she is human and is actually very fun-loving and carefree. Also, something I find really interesting is that the way Lorenzo and Jessica meet is never known. When you meet them, it’s almost like you’re picking up from another story-their happy ending. So you, as an actor get to create a whole backstory and that has been a really fun thing to work out with the actor who plays Lorenzo.
I really think that the song I sing “Come Away with Me” is a perfect song for Jessica, because she is obviously singing to Lorenzo. It’s something I imagine she might have written while out on her balcony after they snuck out together. “Bad Blood” is wonderful because of how well it portrays her relationship with her father after she leaves. When she leaves she creates a divide between them that won’t heal. So it is a great song to describe what happens between them.
I love playing Jessica and I find her to be a very happy person who is strong willed and knows what she wants. I admire her for that, she is a joy to get to know. Hopefully you’ll love her just as much as I do.
Can’t wait for you to watch the magic come to life! Bring all your friends and have the biggest laughs and the most fun you’ve had in years. The more the merrier!
From Chris Brown, our Shylock in the upcoming production of The Merchant of Venice…
It is always a pleasure to play the richness of Shakespeare, rich language and rich playing possibilities. I counted up the number of discoveries in Shylock’s lines that I’ve made since first reading the script: they amount to twenty, and this for only a medium-sized character who is in only five scenes. But he is a rich character.
Superficially he fits the comic type of the paternal heavy whom the young lovers must circumvent and defeat, and, for the rabidly anti-Semitic citizens of Venice, where the play is set, he is devilish as well. But Shakespeare is not content with that.
Instead he crafts a man who, albeit narrow in outlook, is capable of humor and verve, overlying anxiety and uncertainty, and of emotional attachment to his daughter and his deceased wife. His sad fate is to be goaded by the extraordinary hostility he confronts into reducing himself to the vindictive figure that everyone else expects and indeed wants, but Shakespeare has shown other possibilities.
One of them is something that Shylock himself does not fully understand, a motive in addition to the obvious ones for him demanding the famous pound of flesh from Antonio, the merchant of Venice. In the climactic trial scene, Shylock can only tell the Duke that, as some men for no seeming reason urinate at the sound of a bagpipe (Shakespeare doesn’t like bagpipes), so he cannot fully account for his hatred. See if you can detect the x-factor.