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Monday, March 30, 2015

Baltimore Shakespeare Factory Merchant of Venice


I just saw the greatest production of Merchant of Venice I have ever seen, by the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory.

Do not miss it! 


CLICK HERE for a TRAILER to the play


It runs thru 25 April.

You can learn more here, and get tickets here:


It is arguably the most historically significant Merchant of Venice since it was first performed in around 1597.

Why is it so historic? Because this Merchant is performed in OP — Original Pronunciation, which is the Early Modern accent which Shakespeare and his contemporaries spoke. 

It is the first time in 400 years that this play is being spoken in the way that it sounded to William Shakespeare himself.

What is the effect of hearing OP?

Magical.

I have never heard more than a few lines spoken in OP. So to hear an entire play spoken in the language that Shakespeare spoke, and to hear the words as they would have sounded in his mind and on his lips is a truly remarkably thrilling experience. I can not say enough good things about it.

What is it like to see Merchant of Venice — my personal favorite Shakespeare play — performed and spoken in OP?

A religious experience.

It was as if I have never seen the play before and it was reborn in my mind. It was a wonderful, surreal, and once-in-a-lifetime joy that I will never ever forget, as long as I live.

Please drop whatever you are doing right now and buy tickets to this production. 

The Baltimore Shakespeare Factory should be applauded for their decision to not only perform Shakespeare in OP, but to tackle such an important play.


Ben Crystal


To advise them on the OP, they invited Ben Crystal, who advances OP in Shakespeare as an actor, author and producer, based on scholarship with his father, David Crystal, the world’s foremost author and lecturer on the English language. Their revolutionary approach to the Bard is quickly setting the Shakespeare world on fire, and there are more and more OP productions in the works.

Here is a brief and very entertaining video that can help introduce you to OP, and help open your eyes and even more importantly your ears to what Shakespeare really sounded like:




Ben Crystal was at the performance I saw, where he introduced the audience to OP and spoke about his exciting work. I was lucky enough to meet him in person and he is as funny, brilliant, and just plain cool as I had hoped he would be.

As soon as the play began, I have to admit that it took me a little while to adjust my ears to OP. If anything, it made me lean a little closer, and pay a little more attention than I would normally do while watching a play. But it was not a chore to listen to.

After the first few minutes, I found the sound of OP very comfortable and there were whole stretches of time when I didn’t even realize I was listening to such an archaic accent.

The actors, who should all be praised for blazing this OP trail, were fantastic. All of them were clearly visibly thrilled to make such Shakespeare history, and they had a lot of fun on stage. They made the most of it, and the audience, myself included, was rewarded with a very special and unique entertainment.


Zach Brewster-Geisz


Zach Brewster-Geisz as Antonio was great, and he played the character as a good, decent, generous man. 


Chris Cotterman and Valerie Dowdle

Chris Cotterman was a great Bassanio, tall and handsome, and with a rather playful energy. His chemisty with Portia was especially good.

Valerie Dowdle was excellent as Portia. Not only was her Portia almost precisely as I think Shakespeare intended Portia to be, but she brought the character to life in a way that arguably exceeds what the character can and should be.

Portia might be considered the star role of the play, and Ms. Dowdle made the most of that opportunity, and created a princess who is a hot mess. Portia is pretty, yes, but a real diva with daddy issues who loves to hate on men.

If it wasn’t for one other character, Portia would steal the whole show.

That other character of course is Shylock.


Ian Blackwell Rogers


Ian Blackwell Rogers as Shylock was as good as I had hoped. He has a real talent for OP and he clearly loves Shakespeare’s language, since he has an easy familiarity with it.

Shylock is such an important character in Shakespeare’s plays that it is distressing when he is played badly. But when he is played well, like Mr. Rogers’s performance, it is a real treasure. I consider myself very fortunate to see his portrayal of Shylock.

The director, Tom Delise, deserves great praise for assembling such a talented company of actors, and delivering not only a great show, but challenging his actors and his audience with this play, arguably Shakespeare’s most problematic “problem” play.

However, I do wish that Mr. Delise had gone further in his bold production of Merchant

Perhaps the greatest and most unusual choice was to make Portia almost as unlikeable as she is supposed to be. There is a reason why Shakespeare gave her a name that means “pig.” I wrote about that, here.

This production bravely includes her racism towards the Prince of Morocco. When he fails the three caskets test to win her in marriage, she says: “Let all of his complexion choose me so.”

During the intermission, I overheard three men ask themselves why we should be rooting for such a racist princess? That is a very good question.

This production also deserves credit for introducing us to Venetians whose sexuality is not as clear as it has historically been portrayed. This sexuality is not displayed or acted out. It is in the language and how the characters emphasize certain words, especially as far as how much Bassanio and Antonio are “dear” to each other, and how much they “love” each other. 

There is more sexual ambiguity in this production than you may have seen before, and it raises very good questions about the play. Sadly, it does not answer those questions.

You might think that the sexuality of the Venetians is irrelevant. But it is in fact central to this play, and without a proper portrayal of their sexuality, the play runs into trouble.

Bassanio goes to Antonio (an older unmarried man who only associates with other men) because they are lovers. Bassanio asks Antonio for money to pass himself off as a wealthy prince, to marry a princess and get at her gold. Bassanio’s friend Lorenzo has already been similarly passing himself off as heterosexual in order to marry Jessica, not for love, but for her gold.

Much of the humor in the play is found when we realize that the princess whom Bassanio wants to marry, Portia, is in fact a lesbian! She and her maid Nerissa are lesbian lovers. Portia doesn’t want a husband, but she needs one in order to be free.

So, Bassanio pretends to be straight to win Portia, who pretends to be straight in order to be won. Comedy ensues. 

But more importantly, if their sexuality is not depicted properly then it has a disastrous effect on Shylock’s character. 

If we do not appreciate that Shylock knows that Venetians are gold-digging frauds and sexually sinful (as anyone in Shakespeare’s lifetime would have believed) then we are asked to root for Portia and Bassanio, and want them to be happily married.

Instead we should be rooting for Shylock. He is the one and only hero in this play. He is the only character who means what he says, and says what he means, and never represents himself falsely. 

I have discovered persuasive evidence that Shakespeare named Shylock after himself. Yes, “Shylock” means “Shakespeare.” If my theory is correct, then it begs the question, why would Shakespeare name a character after himself, and make him the villain? I wrote about that, here.

Sadly, in this production, Shylock is a villain. He is a sympathetic villain, and Mr. Rogers does his best to get us to like Shylock, but he is still, incorrectly, the bad guy.

So as much as I hate to see Shylock as the villain, and as much as I wanted to see more of what I know Merchant can be rather than the Merchant I was watching, there was so much excellent work and so much talent in this production that I find it hard to fault these artists for the result.

I do not want to discourage you from seeing this fantastic production. 

It is a very rewarding show, and it is well worth your time!

Cheers,




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