Since Shakespeare first wrote “The Merchant of Venice” in the very late 16th century, acting troupes from small community theaters to professional royal companies have been offering their take on the bard’s tale of romance and commerce, all with varying degrees of success.
At Albany Civic Theater, director Dan Stott is hopeful of coming up with a production that will “blow the cobwebs off of Shakespeare,” and “take out some of the stuffiness.” The show begins Friday night at 8 and runs for three weekends.
“We want to have a more friendly production for those folks who maybe aren’t used to Shakespeare,” said Stott. “At the same time, we have had some good success with Shakespeare here at Albany Civic and I want to build on that. We want to bring Shakespeare into a more current form.”
To do that, he is going back to Shakespeare’s time and running rehearsals the way the bard might have done it 400 years ago.
‘The Merchant of Venice’
WHERE: Albany Civic Theater, 235 Second Avenue, Albany
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through Feb. 28
HOW MUCH: $15-$10
MORE INFO: 462-1297 or www.albanycivictheater.org
“We’re approaching this play a little differently because we’re rehearsing in a way that puts the focus on what the Elizabethan actor would have had to deal with,” said Stott. “The discovery happens throughout the rehearsal process, and it becomes a much more collaborative effort.”
The actors are given scripts with only their own lines, and must listen for cues to know when to engage in the conversation.
Click here for Gazette theater writer Matthew G. Moross' review.
“You’re really looking at the play from the character’s point of view,” said Joceylnn Joy Murphy, who plays Portia. “You don’t have a copy of the full script, so you’re working with something that only has your lines. It’s really a different way to rehearse, but I think it’s been working great.”
Al Aumick, who plays Antonio, the merchant, also likes the different style of rehearsal.
“It’s a little disconcerting at first to work from a cue script,” said Aumick, “but it can make for an interesting emotional buildup. It’s an attempt to get back to how the production company would have done it in Shakespeare’s time. I think it’s interesting to rehearse this way and try to make it work the way they would have back then.”
ACT’s “The Merchant of Venice” will also be performed with very little technological enhancement.
“There will be no modern theatrical conventions,” said Stott. “There’ll be full lighting throughout the production, and very little pre-recorded music; as little as possible. We want to keep it live and vibrant, but we’re also trying to put a more natural sheen on Shakespeare.”
As Shakespeare’s play opens, Portia is being wooed by a young nobleman named Bassanio, played by Shane Scezpankowski. When Bassanio needs money to travel to Portia’s estate, he asks for it from his friend, Antonio. The merchant, however, has his money tied up in other ventures and so he borrows the cash from a Jewish moneylender named Shylock, played by Steve Leifer. The two men have a history together, and when Shylock insists that Antonio repay the debt within three months, trouble ensues. Although Shakespeare wrote the play as a comedy, there are some serious issues in the script, including anti-Semitism and sexuality.
“This play is a problem play, not the least of which is anti-Semitism,” said Stott, who also teaches drama at Schenectady County Community College. “There are issues that were totally different in today’s world than they were in Shakespeare’s. It’s a play that can be very uncomfortable for people, and there’s been a general movement lately to make Shylock more sympathetic. Instead of being portrayed as a really nasty guy, there is a little bit of sympathy for him.”
Attitude toward bankers
According to Aumick, people in 16th-century Venice felt pretty much the same way about financial institutions as they do in today’s world.
“This was another period of time evidently when nobody loved a bank,” he said. “It’s another example of why if rates aren’t regulated by law then the borrower better beware. The personification of money-lending is a bit more generic, but there is that overlay of anti-Semitism. A modern person born before World War II, especially when you know what happens later, can become very uncomfortable.”
“The Merchant of Venice” has been produced on Broadway three times, with Dustin Hoffman in the role of Shylock most recently in 1989. He earned one of four Tony nominations for that production, while earlier mountings (back in 1901 and 1930) had very short runs. It has, however, had some off-Broadway success with George C. Scott (1962) and F. Murray Abraham (2003) in the role of Shylock.
Assisting Stott at ACT are Amy Durant as stage manager, Dale Conklin as set designer, Katie Weinberg as production coordinator and Rich Montena as technical director.