Theater and dance students bring “The Merchant of Venice” out of the dark ages and will perform under the Marvin Center lights for a weekend-long theatrical debut.
Eleven student actors took to the stage with acclaimed adjunct professor and District theater professional, Rick Foucheux to create a unique version of Shakespeare’s dramatic play.
One of Shakespeare’s most re-produced works, “The Merchant of Venice” is the story of Bassanio, played by Matt Rist, and his need to borrow money to court the wealthy aristocrat Portia, played by Elyse Steingold.
Bassanio’s friend, played by Zack Shelton, suggests he borrow from Shylock, played by Foucheux, a Jewish moneylender whose own daughter, Jessica, played by Madeline Hendricks, plots with the help of Shylock’s servant Lancelot, played by Maxton Young-Jones, to run away with Antonio’s friend Lorenzo, played by David Neiman.
Though a romantic comedy on the surface, “The Merchant of Venice” delves into complex themes of anti-Semitism, homophobia and xenophobia.
The conflicts presented in the play is not reserved for the actors on stage.
“The vexing questions which this play stirs in us can launch a dialogue within each of us as we watch the performance, and between ourselves and other audience members after the play is over. 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,” director and professor Leslie Jacobson said.
It is because of this ability to transcend centuries that Jacobson chose to move the play’s setting from its original 16th century backdrop to 1898 England, shortly after the trial of Oscar Wilde.
“Wilde and his circle of aesthetes were trend-setters in style and taste, and I think of Antonio’s circle of bright young things similarly,” Jacobson said.
Neiman, a sophomore, who plays Lorenzo, sees the altered qualities of the troupe’s updated version as factors making the experience both distinct and interesting.
“The English high class of the time period was repressing all sorts of prejudices. But it is the homophobia addressed in our rendition that really gives the production an unique direction,” Neiman said.
Shelton, a senior, took a step out of his comfort zone when adjusting to his new role.
“It was my first time playing a gay character. It was challenging but you can’t limit yourself. In this play there are moments that are magical and you’re not yourself,” Shelton said.
Members of the cast said the production’s high level of quality could be attributed to Foucheux’s involvement.
“Rick was such a huge part of the process, and he really treated us as professionals,” Hendricks said.
That relationship is visible on stage, as each character bolsters the others through dedicated and precise acting.
Foucheux describes the relationship between himself and the students as symbiotic.
“It has been a great joy to work with these young actors who I am able to share thoughts about what I’ve learned over the years with. But more so, the cast has given me a lot of rediscovery of joy, excitement and energy of youth,” Foucheux said.
The complex nature of the play causes each actor to undergo a sort of continual growth and discovery that persists even as the production begins.
“For women, this piece is challenging because we are so used to Shakespeare’s archetypes of less complex women, but in this play, the characters are so complicated,” Hendricks said.
Unraveling the complexities took time and determination from the group of theater students.
“We took two months to prepare for this, but we’re still discovering the meaning behind the text. You can’t ever plateau with Shakespeare, there is always something deeper,” Shelton said.
“The Merchant of Venice” will be held in the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre Nov. 3, 4 and 5 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 6 at 2 p.m.
Tickets are $15 for the public, $10 for students and seniors.