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ArtsFest welcomes ‘The Merchant of Venice’

Observer Scene | Friday, February 24, 2006

Actors From the London Stage will perform William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” this weekend in the Decio Mainstage Theatre of the DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts (DPAC). The production will feature the acting talents of Christopher Staines, Louise Yates, Gregory Cox, Isabel Pollen and Tim Hardy.

Actors From the London Stage is now in its 30th year, making it one of the oldest established touring Shakespeare groups in the world. The group (which features a rotating cast of actors) tours semi-annually, with stops at over a dozen universities across the United States. In previous years, the troupe has performed “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Othello” at Notre Dame. They have performed in the Decio Mainstage Theatre the past two years – a venue so well-suited to performance that the actors do not need to use microphones. Though their repertoire is primarily Shakespeare, they have performed works by other playwrights.

What makes the Actors From the London Stage particularly unique is the way in which they perform. Utilizing a cast of only five, the troupe covers all of the parts, splitting roles and performing as multiple characters. This becomes particularly challenging in scenes in which a single actor must play two or more characters. The style and mannerisms that actors employ help differentiate between them, which also shows off their acting chops.

Additionally, props, set design and costuming are relatively sparse, allowing the acting and the words of Shakespeare to take center stage. These stylistic tendencies have been a staple of the Actors From the London Stage and have served them well over the past several years. Most of their performances have sold out and been extremely well-received by the Notre Dame community.

This semester’s program, “The Merchant of Venice,” is one of the Bard’s more controversial plays. Described as “a tale of betrayal and revenge,” though nominally one of Shakespeare’s comedies, it follows three characters – Bassanio, Antonio and Shylock – as they plot and scheme over a loan of 3,000 ducats. The moneylender Shylock agrees to the loan on the condition that if the loan is not repaid in three months, he gets to exact a pound of flesh from Antonio.

Though not as famous as some of the playwright’s other works, “The Merchant of Venice” is still one of Shakespeare’s better comedies. As with most of the Bard’s work, it still has its share of notable scenes, particularly a well-known monologue by Shylock defending his Judaism that asks, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

Yet what makes “The Merchant of Venice” problematic is in its presentation of Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. Shylock’s wickedness is indicative of anti-Semitism, a particularly rampant problem in Shakespeare’s contemporary Elizabethan England. As with films like director D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” the technical aspects of “The Merchant of Venice” are impressive, though the content of the work itself is often deplorable.

“The Merchant of Venice” has undergone various incarnations, most recently a film version starring Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes.

The Actors From the London Stage’s performance this weekend ties in with the annual Spring ArtsFest. If the troupe ‘s previous performances are any indicator, their rendition of “The Merchant of Venice” should be an excellent addition to the festival.