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A ‘Merchant of Venice’ willing to confront anti-Semitism

Dennis Trainor (left), Nael Nacer, and Gigi Watson from Actors' Shakespeare Project's "The Merchant of Venice."
Dennis Trainor (left), Nael Nacer, and Gigi Watson from Actors' Shakespeare Project's "The Merchant of Venice."Nile Scott Studios

Director Igor Golyak’s approach to the Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s “The Merchant of Venice” is decidedly different.

“I am Jewish, and living in a world where anti-Semitism is on the rise, I’m genuinely worried for my children,” says Golyak who is directing the production that runs March 11-April 5 at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre. “That being said, the clash of ideas and tones in the play offers opportunities to explore our discomfort with stereotypes and how we respond to them.”

Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” considered a comedy, follows the wooing of the wealthy Portia. Bassanio is in love with her, but needs to borrow money from his friend, the shipping merchant Antonio, to impress Portia. Antonio is eager to help but doesn’t have cash on hand, so he secures a loan from Shylock, a Jewish man he despises and proudly spat on. When Antonio defaults on the loan, Shylock demands the pound of flesh that was in the loan agreement. The clever Portia disguises herself as a judge and intercedes to save Antonio, but in the process, Shylock is humiliated.

“This play resonates so differently in a world that has experienced the Holocaust,” says Golyak. “The Nazis used the play to reinforce their propaganda that Jews were villains. Knowing that, it’s hard to go back to a time when the words in the play were a plea for tolerance, rather than violence.”

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Golyak, who recently directed a refreshingly unconventional production of “The Seagull” for his Arlekin Players Theatre, says he’s not interested in producing museum pieces.

“Theater has to be alive in the present,” he says. “In Europe, audiences go to the theater because they want to see a particular artist’s point of view.”

For “The Merchant of Venice,” Golyak’s point of view emphasizes some of the play’s irreconcilable conflicts. He has set up his production with Antonio (Dennis Trainor) as the leader of a troupe of performers. The play opens with Trainor at a microphone, like a stand-up comic, with Jordan Palmer (as Shylock’s one-time servant Launcelot Gobbo) providing atmospheric underscoring and punctuation.

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Nael Nacer, who plays Shylock, said he struggled initially with the idea that the heroes of the play are proudly talking about spitting on Shylock. At the same time, he is playing a man who loses everything: his daughter, his religion, his estate.

“We start out in propaganda style, and it was extremely uncomfortable to play into the most absurd clichés, myths, and stereotypes," Nacer says. "We exaggerated them to a degree that makes people laugh. At the same time, it’s clear that I, as the actor, am struggling with the mask of Shylock, and at a certain point, I have to take the mask off.”

Playing into the extremes of “The Merchant of Venice,” Nacer says, “made us very vulnerable in rehearsal. We are playing on very sharp edges. I have to go in really prepared, and then stop using my brain. Everything has to be impulse-driven and discovery-based. During rehearsals, we find ourselves either laughing or crying, but nothing in between.”

Golyak says his vision is rooted in the themes and emotions that drive Shakespeare’s play.

“Some things are planned, while in other cases, we plant seeds and water the ones that start to grow,” he says.

A ‘Long Day’s Journey’ at Hibernian Hall

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“The role of Mary Tyrone is dangerous in so many ways,” says Dayenne CB Walters, seen most recently in Bedlam’s “The Crucible” at Central Square Theater. “I’ve dreamed of playing her for years but never thought I’d have the chance.”

From March 17 to April 4, Walter’s dream comes true when WaltersWest Project and Fort Point Theatre Channel present a reimagined production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night” at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury (details at www.fortpointtheatrechannel.org/long-days-journey).

This production has been cast with actors of color, challenging the idea of who can play the members of the tortured Tyrone family, says director Amy West.

“Without changing much, we can shift the emphasis to bring out the African-American family and culture,” says West. “It offers a new perspective on this extraordinary story.”

O’Neill’s tragedy chronicles one pivotal day in the Tyrone home, when the family’s disintegration feels irreversible. Matriarch Mary, who has just returned from a sanatorium, has not been able to overcome her addiction to morphine; her husband, James, a once-famous actor, is still living in the past; elder son Jamie is an alcoholic; and son Edmund has tuberculosis.

“The language of the play is so expressive,” says Walters. “O’Neill balances syllables and pivots on pronouns. At the same time, he clearly delineates the impact of addiction and enabling on this family.”

Initially, Walters and West thought they would just work on a few scenes, but the response to selections they presented at the Dudley Café were encouraging, and they reached out to representatives of the Eugene O’Neill Society for permission to stage a full production.

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“We had made some cuts to the text, because we found the disparaging comments about recent Irish immigrants were just distracting,” says West. “We also added music and movement for the transitions from scene to scene. It’s still four acts, but not four hours.”

West says the cast’s intention is to push the story away from melodrama in an effort to get to the heart of each family member and what leads them to reveal the skeletons in their closets.

“The family dynamics unfold over the course of one day that is special in all the wrong ways,” says West. “Along the way, we want to provide audiences with a unique perspective on some fascinating characters.”

Nosferatu and … Cher?

Apollinaire Theatre’s residency program at Chelsea Theatre Works continues with a production of “Nosferatu, the Vampyr” (March 19-28). This new adaptation, by M. Sloth Levine, combines elements of Bram Stoker’s original story with F.W. Murnau’s film, but tells the tale through a contemporary, LGBTQ lens.

In a press release, playwright Levine said, “I wanted to see what Dracula looks like today. … I wanted to see what would happen if Nosferatu liked Cher. And I want people to see several trans and nonbinary people talking to each other and solving problems that aren’t about being murdered by cis people. I wanted people to have fun at the theater again.”

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The Sparkhaven Theatre production explores Stoker’s fascination with the terrifying and macabre but is set in the paranoid world of today (details at www.apollinairetheatre.com).

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project. At Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, March 11-April 5. Tickets $15-$55, 866-811-4111, www.actorsshakespeareproject.org

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.