Kat Hermes as Gratiano

When Pigeon Creek announced their 2011 season and asked what I might be interested in playing in The Merchant of Venice, I said I’d either like to play Jessica (since they haven’t let me be a pretty girl for over a year!) or that one guy… I forget his name, you know, the most obnoxious one? At auditions, I ended up reading for neither part. That should have been a hint. From previous experience in ensemble directed shows like this, the entire PCSC board knows that “boorish loudmouth” is well within my emotional range. [ed. It’s true.]

So, in this production, I play Gratiano. He’s “that guy,” the one that you’re friends with but you’re not really sure why. The one who makes you look pretty suave and together in comparison, no matter what kind of trouble you get into.

One thing that was very important to me throughout the rehearsal process was that the audience be able to see themselves reflected in these characters. If our audience sees this play as a period piece, if they shake their heads at how racist and oppressive society was back then, then we as an ensemble have failed and the play has lost much of it’s power.

This is a play about a group of wealthy, entitled young men (and women) who move through the world as they please with no awareness of the unearned privilege that allows them to do so, and no concern for the others they harm along the way. Such people exist as much today as they did in the 16th century. But if the costumes are late medieval, the setting is Venice, and the language is full of Early Modern “thee”s and “thou”s, how do we say to a 21st century Midwestern audience, “This could be you, these could be people you know?”

The answer I found was to find places in which to use gestures and/or vocal patterns that are distinctly modern (but not enough to be wildly incongruous with the setting). We also spent time discussing modern versions of the scenarios the characters work through. Going to a mask was likened to going to a bachelor party. I won’t repeat in this family-friendly blog what we decided Lorenzo and Jessica were up to in Genoa.

I’ve been asked how I could stand to be “so mean” to Shylock in the trial scene, and didn’t I feel bad about having to say “those things”. The answer is similar. I came up with a modern equivalent, a financial institution that I would love to humiliate in an official setting — my bank. But I know that really, that’s not what the questioner was getting at. She was really asking what it feels like to act in a play about racism, and have to say the kinds of ugly things that I’d never say in real life. For me (I’m sure the other actors have their own strategies), it’s all about what I discussed above. I think this play has a lot to show an audience about privilege and oppression, and the most effective way to do that is to be exactly as ugly as the language demands.