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Department of Theatre and Dance Performs The Merchant of Venice
November 03, 2011
George Washington University students star in Shakespeare’s tragic comedy.
The George Washington University Department of Theatre and Dance’s production of the Merchant of Venice aims to do more than just entertain.
Director Leslie Jacobson, a professor of theatre, hopes to challenge the audience by raising difficult questions about morality.
“The vexing questions that this play stirs can launch a dialogue within each of us as we watch the performance,” said Ms. Jacobson. “Where do we stand on matters of discrimination and tolerance — not just in the abstract but in the ways in which we conduct our daily lives?”
The Merchant of Venice tells the story of a wealthy merchant, Antonio, who wants to loan money to his friend, Bassanio, so that he can travel to court a wealthy heiress, Portia. But because Antonio doesn’t have ready access to his cash, he tells Bassanio to obtain a loan from a Jewish moneylender, Shylock, and name Antonio as the loan’s guarantor. Shylock, who has a longstanding grudge against Antonio, agrees to loan the money but stipulates that if the loan is not repaid, Shylock will be entitled to a pound of Antonio’s flesh.
When the loan is not repaid on time, Shylock prepares to take Antonio’s life, but a trial is called to decide the case. After a lawyer clarifies that the contract doesn’t allow for Shylock to shed Antonio’s blood, Shylock is required to pay a fine and convert to Christianity, and Antonio is spared.
While Shylock was viewed as a comedic villain during Shakespeare’s life, today the character is also often portrayed as a victim.
“Shakespeare is fascinating because his plays endure over the centuries, but they change at the same time. As society changes, they ways the plays are presented are changed,” said Ms. Jacobson, who has been teaching and directing at GW for 35 years. “The open anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia exhibited at times in the play, even by characters we like and admire, is deeply troubling.”
The 12-person cast is made up of GW students, but Shylock is played by Rick Foucheux, a professional actor and a visiting teaching artist in the Department of Theatre and Dance. Mr. Fourcheux has been performing in Washington for 28 years and has received two Helen Hayes Awards for outstanding leading actor in the District.
Having Mr. Foucheux on the cast has given students an opportunity to learn by example, said Matt Rist, a senior playing the part of Bassanio.
“Mr. Foucheux has taken the play to another level,” said Mr. Rist, a student in the School of Media and Public Affairs. “With him being there, everyone wants to do their best work.”
The play will be performed at 7:30 p.m. today through Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday at GW’s Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre on the first floor of the Marvin Center.
One of the most challenging parts of performing the play is the language, said Elyse Steingold, a senior studying theater in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.
“Because the language is challenging to understand, it’s made us really focus on how we portray our characters,” she said.
The dynamic characters are what Ms. Jacobson loves most about Shakespeare.
“The characters in his plays have a lot of dimension to them and a lot of contradiction,” said Ms. Jacobson, who also directs GW’s Academy of Classical Acting, which in conjunction with the Shakespeare Theatre Company offers students a Master of Fine Arts.
The costumes were designed by Jenny Bernson, a graduate student pursing a master’s in fine arts, for her thesis. Ms. Bernson chose to put the men in elegant, British suits and tailcoats while the women are dressed in colorful Victorian gowns. And the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre has been transformed to reflect London in 1898. In some scenes, the stage becomes a London street with authentic lamp posts, while in others it turns into an English estate and a courtroom.
The cast has been rehearsing four to six days a week to prepare for its four performances. Mr. Rist said the time commitment has paid off.
“I feel like this production has made me grow a lot as an actor,” he said.
Ms. Steingold hopes the audiences not only enjoy the show but leave thinking and debating about what’s right and wrong.
“This is definitely the most thought-provoking show I’ve ever been in,” said Ms. Steingold. “The audience will be torn about what’s right and wrong and whether they’re on Shylock’s or the merchant’s side.”
For more information on GW’s production of The Merchant of Venice, click here.