Beautiful lace and velvet reflect off the mirrored stage floor of a play that pretends to be patterned on love and justice. But in between those lovely, righteous topics, Shakespeare neatly sews in discrimination and revenge.
“The Merchant of Venice”
WHEN: Now through May 6
WHERE: The Guthrie Theater, 818 S. Second St., Minneapolis
TICKETS: $22-52, (612) 377-2224, www.guthrietheater.org
With a perfect head of curls and porcelain skin, the character Jessica brings beauty to the slightly uncomfortable storyline, wearing her incredibly wide, 18th century dress, stuffed with side hoops and a laced, tight corset.
Jumping off the small stage and into a pool of controversy, University BFA senior Christine Weber wasn’t scared, but excited for the chance to speak Elizabethan English while gracing the stage at the Guthrie, taking on the role of Jessica in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.”
Dripping with anti-Semitism, the play has historically been known to raise questions of whether theaters should be putting such dark ideas into the limelight.
During the Middle Ages, English Jews faced tough prosecution, often being portrayed on stage with crooked noses and bright red hair. The play could easily be read as a continuation of the anti-Semitic tradition, or at least a representation of it Shakespeare-style.
The “Merchant of Venice” revolves around money, while greed and revenge lurk beneath the pillars on stage. When Bassanio, a dashing poor guy, needs some dough to win the hand of Portia, a hot rich lady, B’s friend Antonio arranges a dirty deal with a Jewish moneylender named Shylock.
In short, Antonio can’t pay Shylock back and so owes him a gross sum – a pound of his flesh.
Bassanio gets his lady but has to rush off to save his beloved friend Antonio. There’s a trial, a few surprising twists and in the end, Shylock just looks like a big jerk of a Jew while the Christians live happily ever after.
Even his daughter Jessica turns against him, running away to elope with her lover Lorenzo and convert to Christianity.
Shylock is also forced to convert as punishment and the scene ends with him sheepishly consenting to his “deserved” fate.
With his monstrous temper and unwillingness to compromise in his demand for Antonio’s flesh, Shylock is easy to hate. At the same time, his miserable fate at the conclusion of the trial almost seems to deserve sympathy.
Only two weeks into the show’s production, Weber has already been asked why she, as Jessica, would “screw over her dad.” Weber said it’s been hard to defend the person she plays on stage and even harder not to pass judgment on Jessica herself.
Weber said she’s come to believe that contrary to the rest of the cast, her character acts out of love and not out of disrespect for her father.
“She’s not just pissed at daddy,” she said.
Matthew Amendt, a University graduate who plays Lorezno, said it’s not always pleasant to portray someone who has such a narrow view of the world. But despite the play’s age, its themes resonate as much as ever – racism and disrespect haven’t disappeared.
Jessica and Lorenzo occupy limited stage time and although their impact on the plot is less obvious, the relationship between their two characters possibly serves as hope for reconciliation to the cancerous ideas separating their world.
Even with the political incorrectness dominating the play, the couple’s acting did lead the audience to at least believe in love.
On stage, Amendt and Weber have an infectious chemistry, flirting across the courtyard and societal boundaries alike. They’re just as cute offstage, sitting in the Guthrie lounge on a Friday afternoon, even without the fancy gown and tights, which Amendt notes he’s down with.
Meeting a few years back, the actors agreed being friends has made the production that much more enjoyable, even though Weber said Amendt “smells funny” (for the sake of his career, she was only kidding).
Both influenced by theatrical mothers, Amendt and Weber were born with scripts in hand.
The son of a theater director in Pittsburg, Amendt began his career on the stage as a “prop baby,” famous for his powerful delivery of “goo-goo ga-ga.” As a senior in high school with plans to become a chemical engineer, Amendt said he fought hard against becoming an actor.
“As a career, I thought it was stupid. I wanted to make money,” he said. “Everyone told me it would be a miserable life, but acting followed me around and didn’t really give me a choice.”
Growing up in Minnetonka, Weber knew in middle school that acting was it, and by the time she was a teenager she was acting in theaters across Minneapolis.
Busy with the production and still attending classes, Weber is dying for more time to read books (which she admits to judging by the “back” cover). Amendt, who graduated with his BFA in 2004, bragged that he’s enjoying playing unlimited hours on his Xbox.
Far from the posh lifestyles of the characters they play, Weber and Amendt are also far from greedy, noting that the key to being a young actor is faith and not the paycheck.
“If you don’t have a job, the world’s not over,” Amendt said. “As long as you can pay the rent.”
Contrary to the popular belief of American high school kids, Shakespeare did dabble in some pretty savory, psychedelic stuff, especially in the latter years of his career. But it isn’t often those works are performed by acting troupes. Apart from the usual labyrinthine plots and obsessive, cerebral monologues, however, Shakespeare’s romantic plays have enough pathos, mythological disarray and hilarious cult violence to entice even the most bizarre – and skeptical – of playgoers.
This weekend The Sophomore Company of the University Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program will be performing two of these Shakespearean romantic sprinkles in repertory at Rarig Center’s Stoll Thrust Stage.
“The Winter’s Tale”
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Stoll Thrust Theatre
The 17 sophomore students – who auditioned into the BFA program as freshmen – have spent the past three months developing the emotive mojo of their characters and mastering the often wobbly and dense Early Modern English language. Although both pieces (unsurprisingly) have dizzying and eloquent poetic verse and prose, the students have come to master the lines as their own organic voice.
“The language is fun, meaty and juicy, and it doesn’t have to be such an arduous thing to decipher,” said Joanna Harmon, BFA sophomore who plays Imogen in “Cymbeline.” Their creative process relied heavily on dynamic effect and introspection in order to nurture the character’s most humanistic-as well as fantastical-elements.
“It’s not at first about creating a picture. It has to come out of an emotional place,” Harmon explained.
“Cymbeline,” assumed by some to be a parody of Shakespeare’s earlier works, is one big tossed salad of ethos, disguise and moral upheaval. Its overly complicated plot often hints at Shakespeare’s literary tomfoolery. Posthumus, a noble peasant and male protagonist, secretly marries King Cymbeline of Britain’s daughter Imogen. King Cymbeline, upon hearing the news, banishes Posthumus from his kingdom.
When Iachimo, a Roman soldier, tries to get Imogen to commit adultery, she fakes her death as a reaction to the scheme. A British-Roman war ensues (the cast excels at creating a war scene with only eight actors), and the resolution of the play comes in clumps of missing pieces in which many of the characters have assumed disguises. At one point in the play, Imogen wakes up next to a headless corpse who looks exactly like her lover Posthumus. In another scene, the god Jupiter makes a grand charioted entrance, creating further speculatory whimsy.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. tonight and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Stoll Thrust Theatre in Rarig Center, West Bank
“The Winter’s Tale” stages a similar “problem play” blueprint, with intense psychological drama giving way to comedic timbre come time for the merry ending. Two childhood pals, King Leontes of Sicilia and King Polixenes of Bohemia, become caught in a web of accusations and adultery when Leontes (falsely) accuses Polixenes of impregnating his wife, Queen Hermoine. Although the Oracle at Delphi proclaims her innocence, the damage has been done, and Leontes sends Antigonus, a Sicilian courtier, to abandon the “bastard” child on the seacoast of Bohemia. It is in this scene that Shakespeare’s famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear” materializes, making for a splendid display of fable and special effects. In essence, the gentleman Antigonus becomes a feast for an onstage bear, illuminated in a realistic rawhide costume.
Both plays were penned late in Shakespeare’s career, long after he had mastered the genres of comedy, tragedy and history. They both fall into the category of Shakespeare’s late romances, which are, more than anything, sprinklings of Shakespeare’s earlier genres. Both are incredibly dramatic, romantic and are extremely difficult to stage because of their more outlandish elements.
“You have this headless man in ‘Cymbeline,’ but it’s almost funny,” said Harmon.
Both of the plays draw from various time periods, both mythological and medieval, and create an incongruence in regards to time and place.
In the midst of the more unrealistic, absurd elements of the plots, the two casts have taken up reciting mantras – lines out of the respective plays – in order to preserve their sense of actor’s verisimilitude. In “Cymbeline,” the cast repeats: “Howsoe’er ’tis strange, yet is it true.” For “The Winter’s Tale,” they proclaim: “It is required you do awake your faith.” It is no wonder, then, as to how the casts seamlessly execute two plays often deemed un-performable.
And as surely as BFA sophomore Emily Shain continuously reminds herself of this, so should the audience: “The world we live in is so ridiculous, and so is this world.”