While looking forward to Bloomington’s 2016-17 performance season, one particular performance intrigued me beyond all others: Cardinal’s Merchant of Venice featuring an all-female cast. I was as excited as I was concerned about this production. Gender-swapping is common practice in productions of Shakespeare, especially his cross-dressing comedies: As You Like It and Twelfth NIght. Like the heroines of those two plays, Portia, Nerissa, and Jessica all dress up “like fine bragging youth[s]” with “reed voices” and a “braver grace” (Act 3, Scene 4), but how would focusing on the issues of gender fluidity in the play impact the discussion of Jewishness and antisemitism? Would the gender issues overshadow the issues of Jewishness?
My consternation increased because the posters popping up all over town depicted the play as a quirky, fun comedy. While the play is considered to be a comedy (meaning it ends in marriage and in the creation of a new world more suited for lovers), many productions tend to deemphasize that aspect of the play in favor of the tragedy of Shylock. Last year, I saw a prime example of this at the Globe. Jonathan Price’s depiction of Shylock was so tragic. The play ended with an emotionally difficult conversion scene featuring Shylock crying as he professed his belief in a Catholic baptism and Jessica, his daughter, sobbing as she sang a Jewish song of mourning. This was far from a comedy.
With these thoughts swirling around in my brain, I met with Randy White, the production director of Merchant and Cardinal’s Artistic Director, to talk about his all-female, comedic version of the play. Of course I wanted to interview him for my blog, but I also hoped to get some further insight into a play that has always troubled me. I was not disappointed.
From the beginning, White knew right away that he wanted to do an all-female cast of Merchant. Why? As he explained, Cardinal is making a concerted effort to emphasize diversity in its productions. The lack of diversity in the regional acting pool makes this more difficult. Add this to the lack of female roles in a season that includes classical works, and White’s desire for “50/50 gender parity” is difficult to achieve.
Color-blind casting is an accepted practice in American theater, but gender-blind casting is not, which means that women typically do not get the opportunity to perform Shakespeare’s great roles like Lear, Hamlet, and Shylock. Casting an all-female Merchant allow Cardinal to achieve greater diversity. White toyed with the idea of having an all-female cast except for Shylock because “His maleness would stand as a mark of his otherness,” but he quickly left that idea behind for the opportunity to work with a female Shylock. Liz Pazik will be playing Shylock, not Shyla or some other feminized variation. His production keeps the gender roles of the original script while using female actors to experiment with the concept of gender performance and gender fluidity in a larger context.
Shakespeare’s plays are perfect for these gender experiments since, as White explains, they originally “were written for a single sex acting environment, but within that single sex acting environment all gender norms were still available. The comedies allow for gender identity to be fluid and gender identity to be explored as a construct.” In Merchant, all three female characters dress up like men and perform masculinity: “They assume gender identities as constructs, and the play outright discusses the performance of gender.” The all female-cast adds even more complexity to the play’s examination of gender.
But what does it add to the play’s discussion of Jewishness? White admitted this was a tough question. In rehearsals, he has made a concerted effort to “mark, discuss, and talk” about the antisemitism of the piece. Shylock’s otherness is highlighted by costume and accent. The playbill also explores the play’s anti-Semitic themes as they relate to the play, Shakespeare’s England, and the Jewish ghetto in Venice. Like with the play’s emphasis on gender performance, Pazik’s Shylock may just add another layer to thinking about social constructions we use to define individuals by their race or religious belief, not just their gender. Ultimately, though, he feels that the all-female cast “has been more interesting in the courtly romance world” than in regards to Shylock.
White’s statement brings us back to uncomfortable tension in Merchant: is it the tragedy of Shylock or a romantic comedy? White’s directorial philosophy does not privilege one over the other but allows the audience to experience both. He “think[s] of every production as comedy because they are all about the human condition.” Doing so allows for “insight that gives us an opportunity to laugh at ourselves and our utter ridiculousness….Merchant is a comedy with the truth underneath bubbling up in the middle of the play and then receding again. The tension between wanting to laugh at this or getting angry is something that need[s] to be highlighted.”
Many of Shakespeare’s plays, Merchant especially, emphasize the juxtaposition between the funny and the tragic. He makes us feel the whole gamut of emotions as we read his words and get to know his characters. White’s directing style embraces Shakespeare’s complexity, but make no mistake “no one in this play gets away undamaged or without causing damage.” Not even the audience.
Cardinal’s production of Merchant of Venice opens this Friday, October 28, and will run through November 13. Visit Cardinal’s webpage to learn about their ticket prices and discounts, including a great opportunity to take your teenager to see Shakespeare for free.