DelShakes’ Community Tour Delivers Art with a Message

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This post appears courtesy of Delaware Arts INfo Blog.

The Delaware Shakespeare Community Tour returns this autumn with a lively performance of The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare’s multi-layered drama about the corrosive impact of anti-Semitism and xenophobia. It’s a timely choice, as the instances of hate speech and hate crimes have risen in recent times (up 57% per the Anti-Defamation League’s 2017 audit).

Community Tour productions play in non-theatrical settings such as multipurpose rooms, homeless shelters and gymnasiums. The production values are scaled for those spaces, with live music, minimal sets and whatever lighting is available. In this way, the tour exposes live theater to many people who’ve never experienced it. 

Producing Artistic Director David Stradley looks for spaces that can hold a seated audience between 40 and 120 people in a four-sided arrangement. Stradley stressed that Delaware Shakespeare searches for communities which may be underserved by the arts and whose residents might find challenges in traveling to Rockwood Park for its annual Summer Festival. 

The Community Tour performs for  diverse audiences, and the cast reflects that diversity. African-American actor Kirk Wendell Brown plays the role of Shylock. In the October 2018 issue of JVoice Monthly, Stradley wrote that “…this [casting] choice was made, in part, to encourage audiences to consider other population groups who may be treated in similar ways to how we see Shylock treated.” 

If you don’t know the story, The Merchant of Venice is a tale of a Jewish moneylender (Shylock) who is subjected to hate speech by members of the Christian majority in Venice, Italy. To his great dismay, his daughter Jessica (Michaela Shuchman) deserts him and elopes with Lorenzo (Wilfredo Amill), a Christian. Over the course of the play, Shylock is systematically separated from his faith, family, wealth and status. You can’t help but feel for the man who is humiliated and defeated by a rabble-rousing majority. 

Stradley, who also directs The Merchant of Venice, wants to engage the community in a conversation about ensuring that “those who are perceived as different are not treated unjustly.” In the program, audience members will find questions to consider and historical context related to anti-Semitism. Each program has one of four colored stickers which asks a unique question to stimulate thought. For instance, “How do people come to hold prejudiced beliefs?” and “What would you do if you saw someone being treated badly just for being different?” 

A structured conversation about the impact of prejudice and stereotyping occurs immediately following each performance. At the Christina Cultural Arts Center, many topics were covered by a wide range of audience members moved by the actions in the play. Stradley was the moderator and kept the discussion moving. 

A topic that dominated the post-production discussion was empathy — a major theme of the play. The nine-player cast does a wonderful job showing both sides of humanity using love and hate to embrace or ostracize those they consider deserving. As Gratiano, Cameron DelGrosso spits venom at Shylock, but is a hopeless romantic around his fair Nerissa (Tai Verley). Liz Filios’ Portia is a passionate woman waiting for a loving man (Bassanio/Newton Buchanan) to win her hand, but her tenderness takes a dark turn when she tips the scales against Shylock in a court where he feels he deserves justice. 

In disguise as young lawyer Balthazar, Portia argues before the duke/magistrate for mercy — a sentiment Shylock believes strengthens his case against Antonio, but actually weakens it: “The quality of mercy is not strained…[Mercy] is enthroned in the hearts of kings; It is an attribute to God Himself…in the course of justice none of us should see salvation. We do pray for mercy.” 

But is it true mercy for the agrieved or a ruling in favor of the establishment? 

It’s no secret that The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s most divisive plays. Depending upon who has his hands on the text, The Merchant of Venice has been used both as a treatise against anti-Semitism and as propaganda to disparage Jewish people, further cementing them as outcasts. 

In the end, the production and post-performance discussions hope to shine a light on the painful damage inflicted upon a minority by mob rule. By exploring the themes in The Merchant of Venice, Delaware Shakespeare hopes to “…[highlight] our shared humanity [and] find steps to mend tears in a broader social fabric.” (JVoice Monthly, October 2018) 

In the midst of these heavy themes, there is an excellent play! Considered a comedy in its time, The Merchant of Venice has meaty roles, and the Delaware Shakespeare troupe does exceptionally well. You’ll laugh at Lancelot (Emily Schuman) as well as question his motives. You feel the pain and anguish of Antonio (Gregory Isaac) as he realizes his bond of “a pound of flesh” may need to be paid. The pacing and delivery keeps the action moving in the tight confines of theater in the round. The play delivers on many fronts and is a treat for all ages. 

The autumn Community Tour of The Merchant of Venice takes place in venues throughout Delaware from October 24 through November 18 — check delshakes.org for full details. (Performances at Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution, Howard R. Young Correctional Institution and Sussex Correctional Institution are not open to the public, however.) 

Admission to all other performances is free with RSVP at [email protected] or 302.415.3373. There will also be two ticketed performances ($15-25) on November 17 and 18 at OperaDelaware Studios, which have only 125 tickets available for each show.