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November 9, 2009

Have been meaning to write a post about Merchant of Venice (#merven) and costuming thoughts for awhile, definitely since Vanessa Friedman’s excellent coverage of this year’s Paris + Milan Fashion Weeks. Gayle and I have been talking clothes. We’re thinking very modern so we may have to add an iron to our usual touring gear and hit up consignment shops in Baltimore and Philadelphia for some suitable ties, if not entire suits. I can imagine the thrill that will be felt by the actors wearing business suits outdoors in the end of July heat.

Merchant of Venice is striking me more and more as a sleek, ruthless play of marble chess pieces in sharp edged modern suits, always on the go, accumulating, communicating, sifting, betting, collecting, judging. I ordered the Oxford edition . The Pelican, my choice in the past, is only available as a Kindle download. And there is always the Riverside as a constant, but it’s not portable. So the Oxford is my carrying around copy. I don’t remember liking the Arden or the Folger and I won’t have anything to do with an edition that has anything to do with Harold Bloom. I do not like his commentaries. I’m a Northrop Frye kind of director.

The Oxford’s simple cover graphic — a balance/scales — also appealed. From a quick perusal of the commentary, that item is an excellent choice because Merchant seems to be more about capital letter CONCEPTS: Justice, Mercy and their cousins, than it is about any of the individual characters. Perhaps that’s another reason for Portia’s disguise: not only can she save the day, she can represent a quality.

I am directing/exploring Merchant because I have had so many reactions to it. As a child, Portia was my favorite Shakespearean heroine. I loved how she manipulated logic and legal concepts while riding in to save the day (I also loved the Lone Ranger). So I had good memories of Portia. Then, several years ago, I reread Merchant as a possible choice for the next summer’s Theatre Under The Trees (“yes, sir, that’s my baby”) and was repulsed by Portia’s cruelty. I had this sudden vision of Alicia Silverstone in Clueless and Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde but without any warmth or heart or humor — shearing sharpened pink sabers.

Plus, there’s the Jew thing. You can’t get around the “gentle Jew” problem. Once I had a vision of doing an indoor adaptation titled Merchant of Hong Kong, with dark woods, harbor motifs, Chinese Mandarin robes and a British Shylock. Jew switched for Brit. There’s high concept for you.

York has a troubled history with racial and other forms of discrimination so the inciting a race/religious war concern will remain present. I know I’ll have to be prepared for cast questions/discussions. And honestly, I don’t know what to say. That’s why I want to direct Merchant. Shylock has this incredible speech that not only humanizes him but explains his behavior is as the Christians taught him. Gayle’s theory is that the play is anti-banker, although she hasn’t read it recently. Bankers are right now, here in 2009, the villians of nearly every piece. The only way I know to figure out if my first or second impression of Portia is the more accurate one is to direct the play, with no idea how it will turn out. Shakespeare’s truths show in performance.

I think Merchant might turn on Bassiano, the character I’d forgotten. There’s always a character who matters more than you think, the way in for the audience, the point everything pivots around, the weather for the play. In Twelfth Night, it’s Olivia; in Midsummer, it’s Oberon. They’re the characters who bring all the pieces together. And I had forgotten Bassiano. You remember Shylock, Portia, even Antonio. But I think Bassiano might be the one who makes it all work. But that’s just my first THIRD impression, after a quick read. I’m sure there’s a few more to come.

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