MERCHANT OF VENICE offers lessons of value

Now touring elementary schools.

PROVO — The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s most complex plays. It deals with issues of race, the legal system, love, duty, mercy, and justice. So to go into BYU’s production without any foreknowledge, one might be surprised to see the place is decked out for kids. That’s right, BYU’s Young Company took what is already a bold choice and went even further to make it accessible for children. What a feat!

For those that aren’t familiar with the plot of The Merchant of Venice, it revolves around a Jew named Shylock who acts a moneylender to the rich Venetian Antonio. Antonio gets money for his friend Bassanio who needs funds to woo the beautiful Portia. Shylock decides to lend the money with the stipulation that if Antonio cannot pay it back by a certain date, he must forfeit a pound of flesh of Shylock’s choosing. The plot thickens as  Antonio falls on hard times and cannot repay in time, forcing Bassanio come to his aid. However his newly won love, Portia, has plans of her own and in exacting mercy and justice to the fullest extent, she teaches everyone a lesson about human nature.

This production let the audience come up with replacement occupations, money, and nationalities for the characters. I thought it would be silly, hearing about a man who worked at the DMV, or a beautiful woman from Mordor, but this technique worked really well in diffusing the race issue in this play. The cast also handled this choice well, because they—impressively—never missed the words that they needed to change. The whole show followed this interactive vein, in fact. Children sat on the stage, audience members were asked questions, and some audience members even pulled up to play parts. This was the great success of this show. Children were given costumes and small lines and they didn’t just play guards or villagers, but were secondary characters, and they were adorable! Though they were a little shy at first, they warmed up as it went on, and it was clear they were loving it.

While the look and feel of this show was great, the acting was a little subpar.  Adam White was an energetic Bassanio and Jenna Hawkins was great as the little parts she played within the show when she wasn’t the Storyteller, but it seemed a little fake and put on whenever they talked to the audience. Katie Jarvis as Antonia had a cool, dominating demeanor that worked, but I had a hard time hearing her even in the intimate space. Shakespeare, even for children, is all about the language, and I felt like sometimes this cast sacrificed the magic of the words in order to seem more accessible.

Not all the acting was off that night, though. Andrew Foree was great as playing the frustrated Shylock. He gave a certain gravity and wasn’t too villainous, and didn’t make Shylock seem like a total victim either. That’s a hard balance to find in this play and Foree did well with that. Sarah Butler’s quick witted and charming Portia was another highlight of the evening. She really worked well with the audience and made her scenes feel balanced between presentation and naturalism. Her ability to walk between the world of the play and the world of the audience helped strengthen the sharp intelligence of her character and I really enjoyed watching her scenes.

Besides some of the faults this production had in the acting, it focused on clean cut, clear interactions with the kids. That being said,  I think this is a major success. Seeing the glow on the face of the little girl who was chosen to play Nerissa as she was cheered on by the audience made me reflect on all the great exposure I had to Shakespeare as a child. Shows like this are the reason I started reading Shakespeare at a young age. It was simply too exciting not to read!  So I think it is a great accomplishment whenever a company exposes  children to works what adults deem as “too advanced.”  The smiles on the kids faces that night were proof enough that such a thought is far from truth.

The Merchant of Venice plays in the Margetts Arena Theatre in the Harris Fine Arts Center on the campus of Brigham Young University on Wednesday through Saturday at 7 PM and on Saturday at 11 AM and 2 PM through February 4 before touring local elementary schools. Tickets are $4-6. For more information, visit www.byuarts.com.

Left to Right: Andrew Foree, Sarah Butler, Jenna Hawkins, Katie Jarvis, and Adam White
About Daniel Anderson

Daniel Fenton Anderson is a theatre student at UVU. He's an actor, sound designer, and is also a founding member of the Grassroots Shakespeare Company. He speaks french and loves cooking. He wishes he had a dog.