GALLERY PLAYERS PRESENTS MERCHANT OF VENICE
The last show of the Gallery Players’ 68th season, William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, will open Saturday, May 13 at 8:00 p.m. Directed by Mark Mann, the play will be set in the 1960s and includes some of the most highly-charged scenes dramatizing the competing claims of tolerance and intolerance, religious law and civil society, justice and mercy; while in the character of Shylock he created one of the most memorable outsiders in all theatre.
The play, sometimes viewed as controversial because of the apparent anti-Semitic treatment of Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, provides an opportunity to delve into the complexities of Shakespeare’s characters. Mann, who has previously directed many shows for Gallery Players including Guys and Dolls and Fiddler on the Roof, notes it can be seen as a ‘problem play.’ “One of the problems is that some of the characters leave a bad taste in your mouth, but I don’t consider that a problem. I consider that an opportunity,” Mann said.
Mann didn’t want to sanitize the uncomfortable verbiage. “I think it’s more important these days more than ever before that these things be brought out,” Mann said, “There is something that compromises each character which I think makes it a much more complicated world than good or bad, black and white.”
For Matt Hermes, who plays Shylock, it was the complexity of the character that made Shylock feel like more than a stereotype. “Like so many or all of Shakespeare’s characters that are marginalized or of a different persuasion – whether it be color or race – Shakespeare does a really great job of making him human. He paints a portrait of a complex character with flaws and strengths. He’s neither all good nor all bad and is simply a complex person,” Hermes said.
“Shylock has a heart, he has more depth than many Jewish characters of the day received. You can sympathize with him. Although his method of revenge is over the top, you can see why he got there and what he had to do to get by,” Mann said.
Technically a comedy, Mann pushes the comedic aspects whenever there is a possibility for it, but notes it shouldn’t allow people to sit back and relax. “We found a lot of comedy in [the play]. As things get more serious, the comedy leaves a little bit of a bad taste in your mouth. One of the aims of theater should be to shake people up out of their seats a little bit. People should be a little uncomfortable with what they are seeing.”
For Laurie Alexander, who is on the Gallery Players committee and has acted and directed in numerous Gallery Players productions, the choice for a Jewish theater to present The Merchant of Venice provides the opportunity to remember Jewish history. “It is important that we remember,” Alexander said, “It is important to know how [Jewish people] were treated. You can learn from history – to see the pain of what they had to go through, that is part of the remembering.”
Additionally, Alexander, who plays a supporting role in this production, views the work as an important piece of theatrical history. “It is such a classic and it is a Jewish story. Part of the mission of Gallery Players is to present Jewish issues and Jewish plays.”
“I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare in my theater career and Merchant was one I never wanted to do because I had the same impression a lot of people have when you first hear it. ‘Ew, Anti-Semitism? That’s not where we are today,’ but sadly, maybe its time has come around,” Mann said.
All three agree the complexity of the characters in the play allows the actors and the audience members to explore a truly human world that weighs right and wrong, comedy, suffering, pain, and love. “I think it’s a beautiful play with some of the best written characters in the Shakespearean cannon,” Mann said.
The Merchant of Venice will be presented in the Roth/Resler Theater Saturdays, May 13 and May 20 at 8:00 p.m., Sundays May 14 and May 21 at 2:30 p.m., and Thursday May 18 at 7:30 p.m. Purchase tickets through jccgalleryplayers.org or by calling 614-231-2731. Contact Jared Saltman with questions at 614-559-6248.