Open market in the Elizabethan era

‘Merchant of Venice’ looks at insider status, and what people will do to achieve it

COLLECTING INTEREST: Shylock the moneylender (Dean Nicholson) is owed 3

COLLECTING INTEREST: Shylock the moneylender (Dean Nicholson) is owed 3

The Bard is back for 2013, and flesh is selling by the pound. If you thought service charges were bad today, you never did business in 16th century Venice.

Bard in Your Own Backyard, Cranbrook’s Shakespeare society, is mounting an intriguing production of one of Shakespeare’s most famous and challenging plays. “The Merchant of Venice” opens Thursday, Jan. 24, at the Key City Theatre in Cranbrook.

“Merchant” follows a dual storyline — the wooing of Portia, a rich heiress, by several suitors, and the debt of the businessman Antonio to the moneylender Shylock the Jew. Antonio has borrowed the money from Shylock to finance his friend Bassanio’s pursuit of Portia. The two storylines with their main characters merge at the play’s climax, but a mix of comedic and tragic elements makes “Merchant” one of Shakespeare’s more challenging plays to produce.

The production marks the directorial debut of Dean Nicholson, who also plays one of the lead characters, Shylock the Jew. Nicholson was intrigued by the contrast of the two storylines, the first a fluffy romance and the second a dark drama exploring human weakness, and he has sought to create a production that seeks to meld the two with commentary that is relevant to today’s audience.

Contrasting scenes of broad physical humour, witty dialogue and intense drama into a cohesive whole was the challenge Dean undertook.

“Merchant of Venice” is certainly one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, and one of his most performed, but it is also a difficult play to stage.

It is potentially troubling to modern audiences because of some of its central themes, which can be construed as anti-Semitic.

Nicholson said the BYOB production focuses less on the religious concerns, however, and more on the ease with which people create divisions between people, whether based on age, status, wealth or gender.

In this production, the anachronistic use of modern technology in an Elizabethan setting underscores one such division between the technologically savvy young and the older generation who risk becoming out of touch, and are only seen as a source of money.

“Merchant” presents a host of Shakespeare’s notable characters — Portia and her suitors, Antonio and Bassanio and their entourages, and various eccentric secondary personages.

“Although Shylock is most often remembered because of his enraged pursuit of justice, all of the characters demonstrate a willingness to let ethics and integrity slide in the pursuit of money, status, love and revenge,” Nicholson said.

Shakespeare ostensibly wrote the play in the midst of an anti-Semitic time and culture (Elizabethan society has been described as “judeophobic”); even so, Shylock remains one of his most intriguing and sympathetic characters.

His ostricization from the society around him is made plain, as are the reasons for his resentment.

One can sympathize with Shylock after the flight of his daughter with his money, and the transference of his rage to Antonio, who has been forced to borrow from the Jew even while despising him. Thus, the whole “pound of flesh” metaphor turns around the rage of an underdog.

“In the end, the production looks at the experiences of insiders and outsiders, and what individuals are willing to do to belong to a more desirable group,” Nicholson said. “Do any of the characters get what they want, and want do they have to give up to belong?”

Once again, Bard in Your Own Backyard has tapped into the local acting community for the broad range of roles required to bring Shakespeare to life on stage.

The cast, featuring both veteran actors of the scene and newcomers, includes: David Prinn, Dean Nicholson, Don Davidson, Josh Klassen, Jarrod Bondy, Drew McGowan, Graham McBean, Mark Casey, Bob Wakulich, Nathan Staplin, Alan McBean, Jeff Cooper, William Nicholson, Danielle Nicholson, Kimberley Davidson, Michelle Heinz, Hannah van der Roest, Jean Ann Debreceni, Joe Debreceni, and Joel Vinge.

“Merchant of Venice,” directed by Dean Nicholson and produced by Susan Hanson, runs Thursday through Saturday, Jan. 24, 25 and 26, and Thursday through Saturday, Jan. 31, Feb. 1 and Feb. 2.

Tickets are available at the Key City Theatre box office.