Thursday, January 31, 2008

Merchant Rehearsals Officially Begin

Monday Night was the first full rehearsal for ASC's The Merchant of Venice. ASC first rehearsals are a bit different than many other companies', and come from our history with Unrehearsed Shakespeare. After weeks of private study, as well as one-on-one and small group coaching, the whole cast meets and does the entire play. On their feet. With no rehearsal or set blocking. The result is sometimes messy somtimes sublime, but never boring.

A few pictures of the event from our own "Jessica", Beth Ann Leone:

Justin Gibbs (Bassanio) and Elizabeth Belonzi (Portia)

Jonathan Hopkins (Lorenzo)

Jessica Weiss (Nerissa) and Michael Hajek (Stephano) sing

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

First Look at the Merchant Set

Our talented set designer for The Merchant of Venice, Timur Kocak (also our Salerio!) has shared his latest sketch for the design of the set and floor painting. As usual, it's a lovely thing:

Monday, January 14, 2008

Shylock Speaks

A few thoughts from Peter Galman on his preparation for the role of Shylock in ASC's upcoming production of The Merchant of Venice, opening February 21st:

Shylock in the Merchant of Venice is the voice of oppressed, the trod upon, the rejected, the categorized, the object of scorn that all striving humankind can relate to. Somewhere deep inside us comes a voice that cries out in defense of ourselves when victimized by hatred or even when slighted for one more preferred. It comes from the same place in us that wants a second chance, for the tables to be turned, for a second opinion, for an apology, for vindication. Shylock is presented with such an opportunity, and we see him with it right at the beginning, at the introduction of his character in the play. He senses the rich opportunity of that moment and revels in it. It's what attracted me to him in the first place. This voice compels hearing and demands attention.

"Like my fellow Jews, I may be confined to a ghetto and relegated to the un-Christian business of moneylending, and my words are steeped in deep resentment of my plight, but my spirit yearns to walk the earth as one of God's creatures, in communion with my fellow human beings."

What I am discovering as I go deeper into the development of character is my dual nature. Shakespeare may not have had much experience with Jewish idiosyncrasies, but in the very first scene he hits upon one of the most typical: that of saying one thing but meaning something else! This strikes to the heart of the Jewish stereotype. After I vent to the offer of Antonio all the bilious reasons why I would reject a transaction with the Christian, I do an about face and confide I would be friends and have Antonio's love. That's just the start of exposition to my dual nature. I am torn by a passion, by a conviction that compels me to "use or be used". I have a choice all the way down to the lines at the end and I think if I stay with that dynamic throughout it will make for a compelling characterization.

I am now reading of Shylocks played in past productions, and it amazes me how each, whether it be Edmund Kean, or Sir Tree, or Sir Henry Irving, or Jacob Adler of the great Yiddish Theater in the early 20th Century, becomes a statement of the way to play him as to appeal to the audience of their respective theatres. Irving was all dignity in the face of indecency. Adler edited the play so that he was on stage half the time, and was patriarchal, biblical, a tower of strength, patience amidst suffering. A response to the opinion of some that the play is anti-semitic? Perhaps, but Shakespeare's Jew is loaded with humanity and needs no revision to be given "size". Others may make the argument that Shylock's actions are not true to the Jewish identity, but Shakespeare is not writing to an ideal, but to the idea that we are alike and resemble each other in action within a given circumstance -- "to the time and pressure", one of his great themes.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Justice and Mercy

Some thoughts from Colette Rice, ASC's Artstic Director and Play Master of The Merchant of Venice:

I’m well into individual actor coaching for Merchant. What a joy to work on this play! I honestly had no idea how much I would come to love it. It has always perplexed me. So many productions seem to miss the mark. Yet, I haven’t ever felt certain about what that mark is, exactly.

Working with the actors on individual roles has helped to raise many questions. What does The Jew represent in the play and what does The Christian stand for? Why is it that so many of the characters make less than honorable choices? Is there a “good guy?” How does the plot of the three caskets fit with the Antonio/Shylock plot? Oh, there are so many questions… Today I’ll share a few initial impressions based on our coaching to date.

Shylock may represent the letter of the law in Venice: that within us which is inflexible, rigid, intractable, myopic, greedy, and that which feels it must be “right” at all costs. If we are to realize our potential and unlock our higher natures from the lead caskets in which they are all hidden, these parts of ourselves must be either transformed or rooted out. Shylock has a lot of very good reasons for being how he is and Shakespeare spells those reasons out. Yet, in the end he must be changed, or all is lost.

Shakespeare does an interesting thing in this play. He gives us an antagonist in Shylock about whom an Elizabethan audience would have had very strong and specific judgments. Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta had been exceedingly popular for several years, and depicted a Jew who was merciless, cruel, vicious and miserly – and who gets his comeuppance at the end of the play. The Elizabethans were generally very xenophobic people, regarding strangers of all sorts as suspicious and dangerous. Shakespeare’s audience would “know” Shylock before he even began to speak, and he is somewhat true to form. He tells us that he hates Antonio because he is a Christian and because he lends money as a charity and not a business. He would have been a very easy character for the audience to peg: The Villain – The Other who is not like me.

But, as he often does, Shakespeare adds a twist. He gives us this villain and antagonist, and then has him turn around and accuse us, along with all of the Christian characters, of being exactly like him. I don’t think that Shylock’s most famous speech is so much a plea for understanding as it is an accusation and bitter pill of truth: we are all Shylock.

Certainly the Christian characters in the play, with whose ambitions we seem to be meant to sympathize, are hardly without human frailties. Shakespeare’s Venice is a land famous for its laws and the laws are followed to the letter. Mercy doesn’t seem to be in great abundance, though there is a great deal of hubris and blame. The Venetians of the play seem to live beyond their means and to judge anyone who is not exactly like them. They are hardly living from any ideals of Christianity, despite their protestations of their faith. And then Shylock holds Hamlet’s famous mirror up to their natures – and ours. He tells us to take a look at what made him the way he is. Take a look inside ourselves.

And what is needed in this world of judgment, cruelty, avarice and spite? Divine intervention. Portia serves as a sort of Deus ex machina, descending from Belmont (“beautiful mountain”) to Venice and entering the court disguised as a man to transform the events and characters of the play. She introduces Mercy into this world of fierce justice, first challenging Shylock and then Antonio to find that divinity within that allows us to bestow mercy. Her disguise is necessary in order to enter the court at all – as a woman, she has no place there. Yet it is, in part, her womanly nature and understanding that is needed in the moment. Her heart and her mind are both essential in solving the problem of the bond.

There is so much more to discuss. The play is a bottomless well of wisdom and opportunity to learn about ourselves. We’ll be posting more observations as we delve deeper into coaching and rehearsal. We look forward to seeing you at our opening in February.

-Colette Rice
Producing Artistic Director
Play Master, The Merchant of Venice