PROVO — Grassroots Shakespeare’s production of The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, a play with a mix of comedic and tragic elements and a political undertone, was strengthened by a stellar performance by Shylock actor Davey Morrison Dillard. The result was a production that made for a captivating and thought provoking night at the theatre.
Grassroots Shakespeare began in 2009, and their mission is to perform Shakespeare as it was performed in his day. This means they have live music, little rehearsal time, no directors, lighting, costume designer (the actors chose their own costumes), and no fourth wall, which means the audience is apart of the show. They use a traveling stage and perform in outdoor venues, which is certain not what modern audiences are accustomed to. However, experiencing Grassroots Shakespeare’s approach to classics is a delight that has been previously lost to the ages.
The set—even the stage itself—was exceptionally minimalistic. The cast’s use of an elevated thrust stage allowed the audience a dynamic view of the actors at all times. And with no elaborate sets to help set tone, the viewer’s attention is fixed solely on the actors. In true Shakespearean fashion, only words provide the setting, and the viewer’s imagination is immediately engaged. The active part the viewer must play is unusual in modern theater in and of itself. However, there is a secondary effect: with a mis-en-scene choice that is entirely blank canvas, the audience is left with only the relationships between every character to examine. Immediately, the viewer is pulled into the story and the characters in a way that is seldom seen in modern theatre.
With so much emphasis being placed on the actors, the importance of talented, improvisational actors cannot be overstated. When the actress cast as Narissa gave her last minute notice that she wouldn’t be able to perform, Grassroots was ready with a very skillful replacement, Jessamyn Svensson. Despite the fact that she was unmemorized, she delivered a cold read that was so compelling, I almost entirely forget that she held a script in her hand. Svensson’s mastery of language and knowledge of Shakespearean dialogue was the most evident part of the performance, and she succeeded in providing a true demonstration of craft and talent to the audience. At one point in the show, she even broke the fourth wall to acknowledge the lack of light on stage, and playfully remarked, “Sorry, I am reading this,” which won a round of laughter from the many audience members. The casual choice to disregard the fourth wall strengthened the intimate tone of the performance, and in fact augmented the magic of Grassroots theater.
Dillard had a very powerful take on Shylock, a Jewish merchant who has been bullied and mocked for his beliefs by Antonio the Christian. Shylock is finally able to get his vengeance when they strike a deal that Antonio is unable to keep, a situation that provided insight into two of Shakespeare’s timeless characters. During Shylock’s famous “Hath not Jews eyes” soliloquy Dillard engaged the audience with questions comparing the similarities of Jews and Christians. Shylock questions asks whether both groups have arms, organs, and passions. Do they both hurt and heal the same, feel warm and cold the same? Of course they do. If that is the case, then since Christians seek revenge, then Jews too can seek revenge. Dillard’s choice to actively question the audience and expect their answer before he moves on makes the audience another guilty party for agreeing with his revenge. Because of the attention the audience was compelled to pay to the characters, the political and moral implications of the show shone more brightly than they ever would have if this play had been presented in any other fashion.
One of the most powerful scenes in the play is when Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity. The amphitheater fell silent as Dillard, on his knees, slowly took off his yamaka and Star of David scarf and was forced to wear the Christian cross instead. It was an uncomfortable moment as the sheer wrongness of the scene penetrated me. As Dillard left the stage silently, with nothing, it seemed even more wrong that the show just continued to go on as every other character received a happy ending. After Shylock’s last appearance, the rest of the play seems almost slightly cold.
Every single actor, including Ardon Smith as Antonio, Jacob Chapman as Basanio, and Amber Dodge Tinney as the lovely Portia, did a remarkable job bringing all aspects of the story to life and it was a truly authentic and moving performance. With something for everyone, audience members of all ages would enjoy the show. Unfortunately, I attended the final performance of The Merchant of Venice. But if it was any indication of future productions, I would strongly encourage anyone to go and see the next show that Grassroots Shakespeare puts on.