The Merchantess of Venice

Harvard’s Athena Theater Company will diverge from one theatrical precedent to reclaim another when it performs Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice with an all-female cast at the Agassiz Theater this weekend. The production of Shakespeare’s notoriously perplexing play will parallel a 1909 version by the Idler Club, nascent Radcliffe’s first student organization.

An exhibit in Radcliffe’s Baker Room, “Playing Their Part: The Idler Club and the History of Women’s Theater at Harvard and Radcliffe,” will accompany each of the show’s five performances. Cast member and Athena co-founder Julia H. Fawcett ’04 prepared the exhibit after researching the Idler Club on a Carol Pforzheimer Grant last summer.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a black-and-white photograph of the 1909 Merchant of Venice cast that ordinarily hangs in the hallways outside the Agassiz Theater. An Athena recreation of the photo, featuring the same characters in the same positions, will appear beside it and eventually, Fawcett hopes, join the original in the annals of Harvard-Radcliffe history.

The Merchant of Venice—in which a Jewish moneylender seeks retribution against oppressive Venetian society through the law, the only resource available to him, only to be trounced and condemned to Christian conversion by a supposedly impartial judge—has elicited extraordinarily varied critical and dramatic interpretations over the past century. Shakespeare wrote the play as a comedy, compelling some critics to categorize it as anti-Semitic, particularly in the heightened awareness of post-Holocaust scholarship.

Yet Laura P. Perry ’04, director of the Athena production, does not consider Shakespeare’s portrayal of the Jewish moneylender Shylock as a heartless businessman to be anti-Semitic. If so, she said, the play is equally anti-Christian, for its Christian characters appear equally cruel and far more deceitful.

Nonetheless, she said, “It is Shakespeare’s most religious play.”

Perry said The Merchant of Venice is particularly resonant for her because of the tension between Christianity and Judaism that it articulates.

“My mother is Jewish and my father is Christian,” she said. “All my life I’ve tried to decide whether I want to be Jewish or Christian.” She reached a conclusion only after taking a class on the Bible taught by Professor Robert Kiely.

“I realized I wanted to be both,” she said.

The Merchant of Venice is the first play that Perry has directed. She spent the summer studying the text to envisage a clear theme and trajectory for Athena’s production, she said after a rehearsal last week.

Insofar as the play is religious, Pery said, it explores the relationship between law, which is prevalent in Jewish beliefs, and mercy, which many Christian texts mention prominently.

As Perry and the cast worked on last-minute staging adjustments and construction of the set this week, she tried not to allow her conception of the play as a whole to be subsumed beneath details. She e-mailed the cast a biblical quote which she thought expressed the essence of the play: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Working with an all-female cast, she said, yields a unique set of challenges. The actors, for instance, spent time learning to walk like men. Yet she believes that they have become more comfortable than they would have been in a mixed-gender rehearsal environment.

And indeed the cast’s spirit remained high during the last week of rehearsal, in spite of lost props and anxious dreams about the upcoming performance. The actors began each rehearsal with physical and verbal games, such as selecting a line from the script and repeating it as their characters might, before working on particular scenes.

Before stepping into the center of the Leverett House Junior Common Room to begin rehearsal for Scene 3 of Act II, Fawcett and her scene partner Julia C. Reischel ’04 danced near the fireplace. Caroline E. Jackson ’06, who plays the gregarious and vainglorious Venetian Gratiano, rummaged behind her bags and produced a small potted plant.

“Just to brighten your day,” she called to Perry across the room.

Perry stopped the next scene to ask Diana Y. Buda, ’05, who plays Antonio, to take her hands from her hips. “This is rather Peter Pannish,” she said. Together, they concluded that Antonio ought to stroke his then-nonexistent beard instead.

A week before opening night, the entire cast met with Kenan Professor of English Marjorie Garber, an expert in both Shakespeare and gender theory, to gain thematic and dramatic insight into the play.

Shortly before the discussion began, Perry said that the play had begun to reflect her dramatic conception perfectly in recent rehearsals and that she anticipated a very successful series of performances. “I have a wonderful cast,” she said. “And I have faith in my actresses.”

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