Having smashed a number of its previous audience attendance records with the professional company’s regular season, Kentucky Shakespeare is ready to present shows from its community partners. First up are the Globe Players, Kentucky Shakespeare’s high-school training program, and their production of “The Merchant of Venice” on Wednesday.
It’s a play with a difficult past, despite being a comedy. The play’s most famous character is a Jewish money lender named Shylock, who is at turns greedy, violent and willing to visit grievous harm on someone to collect his debts.
In short, he’s a character who can exhibit most of the worst stereotypes of Jewish people.
So is this play anti-Semitic? How are the teens of the Globe Players dealing with the difficult themes? How will the teenager playing Shylock deal with the complex and disturbing history of his character?
Insider reached out to director Kyle Ware, Kentucky Shakespeare’s director of education, and Will DeVary, who plays Shylock, to talk about how they approached the play. (Full disclosure: Ware writes our “In Other News” column.)
The two talked about how they examined the text, approached the characters and reached out to a local rabbi for his advice.
“The main thing I wanted to do was create an open environment for the actors … to talk about it from a social point of view where they felt not only willing to talk about the difficult things, but dedicated to talk about these difficult things,” says Ware.
Shakespeare is often known for his beautiful use of language, but fans also recognize that what really makes these plays relevant 400 years after the playwright’s death is their complicated, three-dimensional characters. These complicated characters can do and say some pretty messed up things.
“I think sometimes you create a villain who does a thing, and people will say, ‘Oh, that’s how the writer really feels,’ and you go, ‘Now wait a second, that was the bad guy,'” explains Ware. “And the great thing we discovered is that this is a play without any real heroes or villains to it.”
According to Ware, everyone in this play makes some pretty horrible decisions and does some pretty nasty things. So everyone says things that might make the audience bristle.
For DeVary, the role was both a blessing and a burden, though one he was excited to carry.
“It was very, very important to me to give this role the respect it deserves,” he says. “I’m always a huge text head, so I’m always super into textual research and historical context for the show.”
Like every complicated piece of art or history, context is key.
While you can argue whether or not “Merchant” is inherently anti-Semitic, the same argument doesn’t apply to England in the late 1500s when the play was written: It was super anti-Semitic. It muddies the water quite a bit when trying to understand the intent of the play.
Maybe Shylock is a venal villain meant to represent everything bad the Elizabethans thought about the Jewish people. Or maybe the fact that he’s shown to be a real human with flaws and feelings was a giant leap forward in the battle against anti-Semeticism.
And it’s not like the play’s history after 1600 settled the issue. You don’t have to go back 400 years to find links between the play and ugly bigotry.
“One needs to only look at the fact that Nazi Germany performed the show,” says DeVary.
The 18-year-old Floyd Central student has worked with Actors Theatre, Stage One and Kentucky Shakespeare, not to mention performing in shows at his own school. No doubt part of the reason companies keep hiring the young actor is his serious approach.
Outside of his historical research for the role and working with Ware on unlocking the text, DeVary wanted to explore his character’s faith.
“I was talking to a friend of mine who teaches at Temple, and I was trying to know everything I could know,” says DeVary. “I started learning Hebrew prayers, stuff that would not show up in the show but that would inform the character. Eventually I got to the point where I was, like, ‘I need to talk to a rabbi about this.’”
He got in touch with Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport, senior rabbi at The Temple. The Temple is a reformed congregation, meaning it’s a pretty liberal group of folks.
Rapport (who is on vacation and could not be reached for comment) helped DeVary grapple with the complex nature of the work and explore Shylock’s connection to his faith, which DeVary says is key to his character. Rapport also weighed in on whether or not the play is anti-Semitic.
“Kyle and I, and also the rabbi, are in agreement that the show is not inherently antisemitic,” says DeVary.
Not “inherently,” meaning it depends on how the material is handled, and for the actor, it means respecting Shylock’s faith.
“If I were to approach the role and say, ‘Well, (his faith) is an incidental part of his character,’ I’d be doing a major disservice to what Shakespeare wrote — and to the Jewish community,” DeVary says.
It’s often impossible to definitively answer questions about the intersection of art and the darker sides of our shared history.
The best current artists and teachers can do is explore with open eyes the ugliness and complexities of yesteryear, and then put them on stage for the audience to ponder.
And don’t forget to have a few laughs. “Merchant” is a comedy, and like all of Shakespeare’s comedies, it’s quite funny in capable hands. Ware, DeVary and the rest of the cast sound as capable as they come.
“The Merchant of Venice” is on stage four nights only, running July 26-29. Performances start at 8 p.m. in Central Park. All Kentucky Shakespeare performances are offered free of charge.