Three Performing Arts Groups Unite for The Merchant of Venice

Costume renderings by Mary Traylor

William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, written more than 400 years ago, is still staged today, although many theater companies express some reservations about its performance. The play is thought to be unsettling to modern audiences especially in the portrayal of the Jewish moneylender Shylock and undercurrents of anti-Semitism.

UMKC’s University Playhouse’s 1950 production of The Merchant of Venice
UMKC’s University Playhouse’s 1950 production of The Merchant of Venice

The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival production of The Merchant of Venice, is to be presented by the Jewish Community Center’s White Theatre and Johnson County Community College’s Performing Arts Series in March, the first professional production of the play in Kansas City in sixty-five years. Each performance will include a post-show TALK BACK with the director, production team and actors.

The performances at the Jewish Community Center – White Theatre are scheduled for March 19-22. Less than a week later, the play will be presented as part of the Performing Arts Series at Johnson County Community College-Polsky Theatre. There are four public performances and one school show March 26-29.

For Heart of America Shakespeare Festival Executive Artistic Director Sidonie Garrett and the Jewish Community Center’s Director of Cultural Arts, Krista Blackwood, the play offers a chance for conversation. Blackwood and Garrett met almost two years ago to begin discussions about the staging of The Merchant of Venice. “I have wanted to direct Merchant for many years,” Garrett says.

Blackwood wanted to offer Shakespeare to the audiences who attend shows at the White Theatre. “I am enthusiastic about Shakespeare on our stage. Sidonie and I began to discuss the particulars and financing became the issue.” With that, Emily Behrmann, the general manager of the Performing Arts Series at Johnson County Community College, became a part of the conversation. The considerable cost of mounting a significant play such as The Merchant of Venice necessitates as many performances as possible. Behrmann looked at the Performing Arts Series schedule and found the right time to present the play. “I knew it was worth a call to Emily,” Garrett says.

The three women believe they have the chance to expand the conversation to many in the community. “From the Jewish perspective, this is a ‘problem’ play,” Blackwood says, “a play where the situation faced by the protagonist is put forward by the author as representative of a contemporary social problem.” To further explore these issues, the White Theatre, at the end of May, will present Shylock, a play by Gareth Armstrong with Guy Masterson as the main character, Blackwood explains.

Garrett understands the hesitation to perform the play. “There is a fear that Shylock is dehumanized, but Shakespeare was a humanist and Shylock does have his humanity. There are lines that clearly illustrate his humanity,” she says. Garrett expects audiences to explore Shylock along with the cast. “Is he a creation of the time? Is he truly a bad guy as he watches his daughter renounce her faith and in the end, is asked to do the same? We are going to explore Shylock. Shakespeare made him much more human.”

Emily Behrmann, Krista Blackwood and Sidonie Garrett
Emily Behrmann, Krista Blackwood and Sidonie Garrett

“It’s a problem play,” Behrmann says. “A combination of sensitivity and ability to face this play’s topics is so important.” Blackwood agrees that the choice to move past political correctness and acknowledge the play’s relevance will make the issues more tangible for audiences. “We will let audiences be entertained, educated and enlightened. There will be after-show talks that will provide engagement and increase the educational tentacles.”

All three women believe the play will resonate in light of the massacre at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent deaths at the Jewish supermarket in Paris. “It’s even more important now in the aftermath of the tragedy in France,” Blackwood says.

Garrett will direct the play in both locations. One performance at the Polsky Theatre will be a matinee for high school students. “When I was approached, I knew that the Series appreciates professional theater in Polsky. The other is the gift to collaborate with local performing arts groups. We have been partners with Owen-Cox Dance Group and that’s been great,” Behrmann explains.

Garrett applauds the decision to encourage this three-pronged bi-state collaboration. “We are stronger together. This effort will allow us to cross-pollinate audiences. The folks at the Jewish Community Center and those who frequent the Performing Arts Series may not venture to Southmoreland Park. They will get to see something new.” Behrmann says some in the audience may venture to Midtown to see the summer show in the park. The Heart of America Shakespeare festival’s 23rd season production of King Lear will run from June 16 through July 6 in Southmoreland Park.

“I really believe we have already achieved success with this partnership,” Behrmann explains. “We all run distinct programs that work. By pooling resources, we are setting ourselves up for success. Now we hope to sell out.” Garrett figures audiences will take advantage of this opportunity to see more Shakespeare.

A great cast, deep in talent, including that of Gary Neal Johnson, will take on The Merchant of Venice. “Certainly this will be a challenging journey. We will perform at The Jewish Community Center-White Theatre and then move to Johnson County Community College. With such a professional cast, I know we will make the transition,” Garrett notes. Behrmann says she wants to see the play in both locations and she expects some fans to do the same.

Johnson says he looks forward to the challenge of Shylock. “I have done a lot of Shakespeare, but it is not easy. It’s a bit like solving a puzzle. However, I suppose Shylock is in my wheelhouse as far as my age and overall physicality.”

“In preparing for this, I am excited to take Shakespeare out of the park and into a more intimate setting,” Garrett says. Whether or not it will be a success is the $50,000 question. “Should it work, I expect many more collaborations,” Behrmann says.

Kellie Houx

Kellie Houx is a writer and photographer. A graduate of Park University, she has 20 years of experience as a journalist. As a writer, wife and mom, she values education, arts, family and togetherness.

Leave a Reply