Entries tagged with “The Merchant of Venice”.

Brooke Heintz (Katherina / Biondello) on playing the Shrew.

The Taming of the Shrew is one of those shows where we feel as if we are going to have a number of audience members coming to watch the finished product who already have very strong opinions on the content of the play. Like The Merchant of the Venice, which gets looked at over and over in the light of whether the play is anti-Semitic, etc., Taming of the Shrew is equally considered controversial when examined through a modern perspective on the relationship between the sexes. Many people who are familiar with the play have had to face the difficulties of our present day discomfort with a show that ends with a woman bending knee to her husband and proclaiming his right of dominance. The fact that the play was written ‘in the past when things were different’ shouldn’t be a throwaway excuse for that level of discomfort, and audiences shouldn’t be expected just to accept that this is a play about people who thought in vastly different ways than we do now. Pigeon Creek especially prides itself on making characters and story lines accessible to audiences now, and I think taking that kind of approach to it would have precisely the opposite effect.

Going into this production, I was interested to see how the rest of my cast wanted to approach this. It’s become almost standard fare nowadays to insert some kind of gimmick when staging the play, to either highlight its themes as misogynistic, or to find ways to subvert Kate’s final speech in its entirety, such as throwing in a wink at the end of the monologue to show the audience that she didn’t mean a word of it. Honestly, I’ve always found these things to be the less interesting choices, and unnecessary pandering to the audience’s need to feel ‘comfortable’ with how things tie together.

Kyle Walker (Petruchio) and I have had many conversations about what it is that Petruchio and Kate end up getting out of this relationship, and how it changes both of them, which I think is part of the key to accepting the play for how it’s written, rather than attempting to impose a modern lens on it. It’s important to look at what kind of characters Petruchio and Kate both are – both of them make extravagant decisions that seem out of place in any sort of logical world, and both seem to possess a natural streak of sadistic humor. As far as Kate goes, her temperament is something that’s so far beyond how any normal person should behave (male or female), that trying to defend her too much turns into making excuses for her unacceptable behavior. Even with the psychological impact of not having a mother figure around, of dealing with the favoritism shown to her sister, etc., she still desires to rule over everyone and everything, and doesn’t understand what it means to bend for anyone. Her actions are incredibly self-centered, and she has only one tactic for getting what she wants: behaving as a shrew. Since no one has proven a match for her tongue or violent actions, it’s managed to work for her just fine – until Petruchio comes along. Not only does he prove her equal in wits, and possess the strength to keep an upper hand on her in terms of her many physical threats to his well-being, but because of this, she’s forced to learn new ways to get what she wants that are equally satisfying once she learns to take ownership of them.

Playing Petruchio’s own game with him and taking it a ridiculous degree is her own way of rebelling and maintaining her sense of who she is, and he doesn’t mind when she does it this way. It isn’t a particularly healthy arrangement, but neither character is particularly emotionally stable at the onset, either. Petruchio doesn’t want to extinguish the fire that makes her Kate – he encourages her when she’s ready to fight the widow at the final banquet, rather than scolding her, and finds the whole situation humorous. The very nature of ordering Kate to give the other women a verbal lashing proves this as well. He doesn’t desire a woman who is meek – but he doesn’t want his marriage to be a constant state of war either, and through getting her to adamantly defend defined gender roles in public, Kate’s granted an armor for her pride that allows her to renounce her old tactics and adopt more socially acceptable ways of getting what she wants. There’s still something discomfiting in this, but there can be, just as there can be something unsettling in The Merchant of Venice that leaves the audience uncertain of how to feel about the characters in the play and their own emotions about what just happened. That sense of uncertainty leaves an audience thinking, rather than just laughing at Kate having ‘pulled one over’ on Petruchio at the end, which I personally think is a much more provocative and meaningful use of the play.

Of course, in the end, our audiences may entirely disagree. Either way, I’m very interested and nervous to see how audiences will react to seeing the play handled in what we considered to be a ‘straight’ fashion. And I hope it leaves you all with something to think about!

Kathleen Bode as Portia

When the 2011 season was announced, I immediately said that I wanted to play Portia in The Merchant of Venice. She is a fascinating character, and I have wanted to play the role all my life. I was thrilled to have been cast as Portia, and could not wait to start rehearsals. I had read the play so many times, and studied this character so much, that I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the her, and how to play her.

The best laid plans…

It became very clear to me at our first read through that I needed to throw all those ideas out the window that I’d had about what I thought this character was. Until we started really working closely with the text I had never really realized how terrible all of the characters in this play are to one another, and Portia is one of the worst. As our Executive Director and Text Coach said “there is not a single redeeming character in this play”. I wholeheartedly agree.

One of the major themes in this play is racism. Most strongly between the Jews and the Christians, and we spent a lot of time in rehearsal talking about this and about the impact it has on us as a contemporary society. What other words could you put in place of “Jew” in any of the lines that might make us think about our own prejudices against the people around us?

But religious racism is not the only form of racism in this play. The first scene with Portia she laments to her maid, Nerissa, how much she loathes all of the suitors that have come to woo her. While the scene is a great one to warm up audiences and get people laughing and engaged, she does it at the expense of others. The stereotypes that Shakespeare plays with still make us laugh today; the drunk German, the Englishman who is to proud to learn another language, the effeminate Frenchman, etc., and modern audiences love them. These stereotypes, however, are (at their very core) racism. Though they are a great way to bring the audience in and really connect with them as an actor, they are sometimes hard to make light. It is not until Portia’s lines about the Prince of Morocco that the audience starts to realize that she isn’t as sweet as she seems. My goal with this scene is to make as many people laugh at these suitors as possible, but also to see if any of them realize what that says about themselves.

In examining the character of Portia more closely, I found it harder and harder to like her. Which made it harder and harder to play her. How do you make someone so cruel be likeable? It seemed as though the more I got into the “head” of the character, the more loathsome I found her to be. I had to really focus on getting into the “heart” of this character in order to bring some sincerity and sympathy to her.

In attempting to bring this character to life on stage, I found it to be an emotionally draining experience. To try and find a balance between the two sides of Portia: ruthless and (ironically) unmerciful vs. vulnerable and kind, was no small feat, and I hope that I was able to do the character… justice.

[ed - in lieu of an actor's blog this week, we decided to article the weekend we have planned in honour of Shakeys' B-day. If you're in the West Michigan area this weekend, you're in for a treat. If not, please please please find some celebration in your own town, or make your own and reply to us. Maybe we'll put it up on the website with your photo if it's really fun...]

Here’s the laydown on perhaps the busiest Shakespeare weekend on earth (a.k.a. his Birthday weekend!)


(Shakespeare’s most controversial!)
Dog Story Theater
7 Jefferson SE
Grand Rapids, MI

Friday Night: 8pm
Saturday Night (Gala Night-see below): 8pm
Sunday Afternoon: 3pm

Music and Prologues start 10 minutes to curtain!
Special “Bard Beyond the Boards” lecture series offered before each Saturday performance (EMO Series included)!

Visit Dog Story Theater for tix and info!!



Auditions for CYMBELINE; 7 men needed for a ALL-MALE experiment in original staging practices. Auditionees need resume, head-shot and a 12-15 line verse monologue prepared.

11am – 1pm – DOG STORY THEATER (no appointment necessary)

Check out the PCSC website for more information: PCSC AUDITION GUIDELINES


Christopher Marlowe’s THE JEW OF MALTA

A staged-reading via our E.M.O. (Early Modern Others) Series

3pm, Saturday, April 23rd
Tix are “Pay What You Will”

Visit Dog Story Theater for information.




Watch Saturday, April 23rd’s performance of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE…

….then stay for cake, punch and wild entertainment (i.e. deleted scenes, outtakes, parody sequels and more) in honour of our Lord Patron Saint William Shakespeare’s Birthday.

Visit Dog Story Theater for tix.


Hope to see you all there to celebrate 447 years of the Bard,
The Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company

John Wier as Bassanio.

Hi! John Wier, here, reporting from my time playing Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice. A unique experience in many ways, working with Pigeon Creek on this production has been and continues to be a tremendous way to learn. We have investigated many of the original practices of Shakespeare’s company in our time together as an ensemble, adding a certain authenticity to the practice. As an ensemble-directed cast without one person in the role of ‘director,’ the cast is left to their own creative devices in order to make the show work. What I find great about this organic style of theater is that people from all walks of life come together and combine their varying creative influences with the greater goal of making the show come to life in an entertaining way. In our cast, while we have many different levels of experience in acting, everyone throughout the rehearsal process was still given creative rights in making the show their own, the result being a combination of great ideas and lots of experimentation.

One thing that Pigeon Creek focuses highly on is a thorough evaluation of the text. Looking deeply into every line of the play and paraphrasing the meaning of the dialogue into our own thoughts were both helpful tool we used in understanding the language of Shakespeare’s time. By utilizing this, we came across aspects of our characters that we hadn’t thought of before; i.e. their motives, emotions, and even pieces of inner dialogue our characters may have that influence the way that they react physically during a conversation or a monologue. These reactions add a certain aspect of realism to the show, making it seem as if the script is not memorized but that the characters are actually thinking of what they are about to say just as it is happening, and the actors around the speaking characters are reacting as if they are in fact hearing all of this for the first time. As my first experience with these sorts of textual exercises unfolded with Pigeon Creek this year, I found them to be fun and highly beneficial in learning to play the role of Bassanio.

While preparing our minds with the information within the text, we also prepared physically for the show by doing warm-ups often throughout rehearsals and always doing them before every show. I appreciated doing this with an ensemble-directed cast because with all of our theater experience combined we have now learned a slew of different tricks to get the body into a relaxed posture and to get the voice onto a level to be audience-ready. What I like about warm-ups is its basically a once-a-day relaxation seminar. Who would deny that?

In summation, acting with Pigeon Creek has been a blast- a “true-to-the-times” Shakespearean adventure with a talented group of actors. I’ve been privileged to have the opportunity to learn so much and look forward to auditioning for more shows in the future!

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.

Claire Mahave as Nerissa

As Nerissa, I am on stage for nine of twenty scenes, but I seldom speak. Nerissa is Portia’s maid, and ever by her side. It is surprisingly difficult and tiring to play a character that is largely silent and mostly reacts. It is essential to remain engaged and attentive throughout each scene, whether one speaks or not. It is also critical to understand your relative importance in the scene; sometimes background actors have reactions that are so big that it distracts from the other actors and what they are saying. There are moments at which it is appropriate to be a little distracting, but most of the time (and particularly in Shakespeare, whose language is so beautiful and so important), background characters must stay in the background.

There’s also a tremendous freedom to be had in playing a character like Nerissa, though, to be seen in the wide variety of interpretive choices that the text allows. We know several things about Nerissa that are embedded in the lines. We know that Portia is close to her and relies on her. With few exceptions, Nerissa speaks only to Portia and only when the two are alone. Finally, we know that Nerissa defers to her mistress, with no complaints and no questioning of motives.

As an actor, though, it is not enough to know these things. The primary question an actor must answer is why? Why does a character say (or not say) or do (or neglect to do) a particular thing? Why is one road taken instead of another? Does Nerissa love Portia? Is she motivated instead by duty to Portia’s late father? Does she see Portia’s uglier qualities, or is she as completely captivated by Portia’s charms as is everyone else in their world? Is she motherly, a friend, a reluctant ally? With such a vast imbalance of power, can they truly be friends, or is that merely Portia’s illusion, fostered and humored by Nerissa?

I have played with various interpretations and have decided to make Nerissa quite a bit more sympathetic than many of the characters. She is naïve and sweet, eager to make Portia happy and glad to stay in the background. This makes the last scene particularly fun to play as the balance between pleasing Portia and satisfying her own nature cause conflicting impulses.

Ah, Pigeon Creek: How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I now conclude my show with Pigeon Creek,
Saddened by the fact that I must leave.
Exposure to this world of Shakespeare Chic
(Superior to aught I could believe)
Has given me a thirst for more Creek shows
And let me to a great epiphany:
That I shan’t rest for feeling so morose
And craving for their august company.
I love the friendliness and sense of pride,
Support and wisdom given out to all,
Camaraderie and kindness bona fide,
No divas to make anyone feel small.
There is but only one thing left to say:
Post haste, please cast me in another play!

(Editor’s Note: Regardless of Ms. Mahave’s foray into blank verse, we’ve already cast her in our summer show this year, Henry IV part i.)

Tony Myers as Lorenzo

Hello, I will be playing Lorenzo in the Production of The Merchant of Venice. This is my first show with Pigeon Creek and my first professional show. I didn’t know what to expect coming in to this, but I can tell you that thus far, it is a lot of fun and not as scary as I imagined. Dealing with Shakespearean language, I thought, was going to be impossible for me because of how they talk and such. I later came to find out it was quite easy; verse just seemed to flow like a song with rhythm. Learning what I was saying was a little different.

It amazed me on how much extra work was needed to be done when doing a monologue. You have to go in-depth about what your character is saying. And there’s odd things like ‘trochees’, which are where you have to put more emphasis on the first syllable versus the second. The whole thing is new to me and has opened my eyes, since I have only done musicals and am a freshmen in college at Grand Valley.

This is a great experience for me and I’m glad I got the opportunity to do a show with such an amazing group of actors and actresses. During the rehearsal process we help each other. Mind you, the only plays I have done before were with a director who gave us direction. With Pigeon Creek, it is ensemble directed, which was exciting but also nerve-wracking. I usually never say anything, because of the fact that I’m new and I don’t want to mess anything up. I believe I have made one suggestion and it was taken to effect so I guess that is good.

Everyone has another job besides acting; which I thought was cool as it gave more responsibility. I think it makes the show more ‘ours’ than if we had non-actors do things such as costumes, props, set building and such. Wooh! I’ve said too much right here, but any who, I’m having a blast working with everyone in the show. I have learned so much and I am greatly thankful for it.

I urge you to come and watch The Merchant of Venice. I know you will have a blast.

Janna Rosenkranz as Salerio/Stephano

If this post was a NY Post tweet it would be this:

Old broad from the Bronx has new experience, stretches acting muscles! Still finds familiar, happy place! True Facts!

Here’s why:

I was trained classically, which basically means, I haven’t experienced cast direction many times. And by ‘many times’ I mean never. In my 20 odd year career as an actor, I’ve been part of this brave experiment exactly zero times.

It’s also the last thing I expected to experience after moving to West Michigan from my home land of NYC. It’s kind of cool. I’m enjoying it very much, both from an academic and artistic POV. I find it very freeing. Like most actors, I’m really painfully shy, and I’ve lived my life as a nice, well behaved lady (at least that’s what my parents think). I’ve had directors who I could talk with honestly and who sought out and accepted my opinions. I’ve also had ‘old school English directors’ who gave you line readings because they wanted to play the ingénue themselves. I’ve learned to work with both types and their in-betweens. I’ve been a bit hesitant about giving any input, but I’m slowly learning PCSC’s self direction language and now offer my two cents at least once during a rehearsal. It’s so nice being able to talk to a scene partner and play with ideas without involving an all seeing BOSS person.

What’s also wonderful about PCSC’s method and rhetoric is that it is respectful, clear, and generous. Truly an actor’s paradise. In the actor-eat-actor world of NYC theatre generosity from other actors can be difficult to come by, but I felt welcomed by PCSC from the moment I walked into the first audition.

Regarding Merchant in particular, I threw it out there in our first reading that I was Jewish and this play is therefore of great personal interest to me. I once wrote an academic tome (I write tomes, not papers or essays) on Anti-Semitism in the English Language Canon where I mainly compared Shylock to the other great Jew of English Lit, Fagin in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. My thesis was how both of these examples were ‘forgivable’ due to excepted cultural Anti-Semitism and because they are both fully fleshed out characters which elicited sympathy from their intended audiences. Shakespeare’s Jew goes all the way back to the medieval mystery plays and Fagin was based on a real person, Ikey Solomon, a well-known ‘fence’ in London. Dickens’ famously ‘watered down’ his portrayal of Fagin later in his life after becoming friends with a Jewish couple.

But this isn’t an academic blog, so now I’ll talk a little about playing a Christian who has nothing but contempt for Shylock. When Sarah Stark, Joel L. Schindlbeck and I do the famous ‘”hath not a Jew eyes…” scene it’s an interesting challenge to be playing such an insensitive character. Salerio is a bully, he and Solanio have to be make a choice to be threatening in that scene so the actor playing Shylock can give that speech honestly. I’m working on giving Joel more than ‘hate’ at that moment and finding a place in his speech where Salerio might have an enlightened thought or two. One thing I love about acting is listening and reacting, and that scene certainly gives me a workout. Joel and Sarah are both so wonderful to work with that we have started to find moments in that scene which makes it ‘right’ for the three of us, the audience and, of course, the play.

I love Shakespeare so much because his work is about collaboration, which to me is the spirit of theatre. The actors, the text, and the audience come together to create a happening, an event. PCSC lives this spirit to the letter; it’s a pleasure and an honor to be able to work with them. Can’t wait to experience the rest of the Merchant process and can’t wait for Henry IV part I!

Hello! I’m Brooke Heintz, bringing you this week’s blog from the perspective of acting the play’s resident clown, Launcelot Gobbo (as well as the pompous Prince of Arragon and a couple other minor parts). As I write this, Off-Book Day looms: perhaps appropriately directly after the Ides of March (which I can assure you, most of us are feeling plenty wary of as a result).

There are a few questions that, when approached by audience members after a show, I’ve gotten time after time, show after show, year after year, and none so much as:

How in the world do you guys memorize all those lines?

People tend to ask this in a tone that implies they think there must be some kind of voodoo magic involved, or maybe hours and hours of writing the lines again and again on a chalkboard, Bart Simpson style.

I’m here to promise you that no boxes of chalk were harmed or worn to nubs in the making of this production. In reality, every one of us has our own process for memorizing, but there are a few things that are pretty consistent across the board for all of us.

First of all, it’s important to keep in mind that ol’ Billy Shakespeare was looking out for us and our task of having to commit this thing to memory. In fact, the very structure of the language in the play lends itself to memorization. We’ve all probably had the phrase ‘iambic pentameter’ drilled into our skulls by earnest English teachers (I should know; I’ve been one of those), but all that fancy phrase really means it that much of the play is written in metered speech. In other words – it has a rhythm.

It’s that same rhythm that actually helps with getting the text into our skulls. Think about the way in which snatches of lyrics end up in your brain: those dreaded ‘ear-worms.’ Or, the way setting something to a song can aid a student in their studies. That built-in cadence gives the language a lyrical quality, and as such, word choice has a flow, and can get ‘stuck in your head’ if you hear and say it enough.

However, this only applies to the metered section of the text, or verse lines, and not to the prose (un-metered) sections. As a result, I find it’s often much more difficult to memorize prose than verse. Playing a clown in Merchant means that I play a character who finds no cause to use that hoity-toity ‘verse’ language at any point in the play.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t other elements that assist memorization at work in the language. Launcelot, being a clown, often speaks in his own sort of comedic structure constructing arguments to set up his jokes. I’ve found that this is much easier to remember, than, for example, the many prose lines I had in Merry Wives of Windsor, because Launcelot’s lines have an ingrained logic and build, necessary to get to the ‘punch line’, so to speak.

It’s my first time playing a fool, and so I’ve had a lot of fun picking apart the way in which Launcelot speaks, as opposed to the other more serious characters he attends. And rehearsal today was my first attempt to go off book completely – and resulted in a lot less calling for line than I’d expected!

I’ll be over here thanking the linguistics of clowning.

Steven Schwall as Antonio

Hello, this is Steven Schwall. I am playing Antonio, the merchant, in the upcoming Pigeon Creek Shakespeare production of The Merchant of Venice. This is my second production with Pigeon Creek, and the members of the company are starting to treat me like a “veteran”.

This is another ensemble-directed piece, but the personnel are different from those in Henry V. Every ensemble has its own dynamic, but the one thing I am beginning to notice is the overall principles remain the same. There really is a consistency to this company’s approach, and even though the personnel change, the principles remain the same.

I really can’t comment upon the rehearsal process, as I have been involved in wrapping up another production that is keeping me from rehearsals, but the interesting thing I have found about this work is that the title character (which is me) is not as important as one might think. Sure he is pivotal to the plot, but more as a catalyst around which things move than a protagonist or antagonist. Antonio is an object, not an action. This means that I must, in my own work, provide my fellow actors with substance with which to work. This will be a far greater challenge than I originally thought, but I am glad to be surrounded by such a supportive group.

The other thing about this work is that it is another of those mixed genre plays of Shakespeare’s (commonly called “problem plays”). It has some of the trappings of comedy – disguises, mistaken identities, and a happy ending (for most). But at the same time, it is moralistic like a tragedy, dealing with anti-semitism, greed, and justice.

I would encourage you all to come out and see this production. If it turns out like previous Pigeon Creek productions, I am sure you will be in for an evening of thought-provoking, entertaining theatre.