American Shakespeare Center at SoL

by Bailey Basham, Messenger Staff Writer

Players from the American Shakespeare Center will perform alongside students from the School of Letters (SoL) in a Friday night production of select scenes from “The Merchant of Venice.”

As part of a partnership between the American Shakespeare Center (ASC) and the Sewanee School of Letters, co-founder and director of mission, Ralph Cohen, and director of education, Sarah Enloe, spent a week with Ross MacDonald’s SoL Shakespeare class. They engaged “The Merchant of Venice” through a series of exercises intended to consider how Shakespeare in performance enriches our appreciation of his words on the page.

“The Merchant of Venice” is neither comedy, romance, nor tragedy—it is known as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, which are characterized by complex, ambiguous tone, psychological drama and straightforward comic material.

A young Venetian, Bassanio, needs a loan so that he can woo wealthy heiress, Portia. He approaches his friend Antonio, the merchant. Antonio is short of money because all his wealth is invested in his fleet, which is currently at sea. He goes to a Jewish moneylender, Shylock, who hates Antonio because of Antonio’s anti-Semitic behavior towards him.

“The problem plays center around moral or ethical dilemmas,” said James Ross MacDonald, assistant professor of English at the University and faculty member at the School of Letters. “

In one way, the plays we sometimes think of as problem plays, Shakespeare knows they are problematic. He intends that the problem be the pleasure for the audience. It’s kind of hard to know. ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is described on its original title page as a comedy, but for people reading now, it’s impossible to see it as that,” he said.

“In exploring and workshopping some scenes, members of the class get to explore the text from the perspective of a theatrical practitioner, rather than the way a reader does.”

The partnership will bring the company’s national tour to the university each year, and the American Shakespeare Center will host Sewanee students and scholars at its home theater, Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Va. On-campus workshops, covering topics from stage combat to unraveling Shakespeare’s text, will also be offered by ASC actors in residency.

“What I’ve really enjoyed about working with Ralph, Sarah and others from the center is they’re really imaginative and really rigorous,” said MacDonald. “Their artistic vision is one that is very textually-grounded and is looking to extract from close attention to Shakespeare’s text a kind of vision of the character. Often, the things in their performances that seem new are really rooted in close attention to the text itself. What’s great about them in my view is that they never lose sight of Shakespeare’s language, even as they allow it to flower into all kinds of new imaginative visions of how to realize the play on the stage.”

At 8 p.m. on Friday, June 7, ASC players and students from MacDonald’s class will present a public performance of various scenes from the play. Alumni, friends and the community are invited to see the performance in Gailor Auditorium.