Colin Vanden Berg
Assoc. Arts & Culture Editor
From Feb. 8-10, The People’s Shakespeare Project performed William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” at the Ware Center in Lancaster City. “The Merchant of Venice” is a dark comedy about a Christian merchant named Antonio, his dealings with the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, and the romantic exploits of Antonio’s good friend Bassanio.
The play’s production was excellent, sticking to the Shakespearian script with plenty of nonverbal clues from the actors as to the words’ meanings whenever necessary. The actors’ gestures, such as pointing to body parts, vocal inflections like shouting, and movements such as jumping, added energy to the show as well as context to the centuries-old dialog. The standout performances were Alyssa Keshel’s energized, scene-stealing turn as the comedic foil Lancelot, and John Kleimo’s remarkably sincere portrayal of the complex antagonist, Shylock. In the play, Shylock loses thousands of Ducats on an investment in Antonio, and swears vengeance in the form of a pound of Antonio’s flesh one the loan is defaulted. Shylock can be played as either sinister villain or sympathetic outsider, and Kleimo’s anchored the show. Just like on the page, the show was equal parts comedy and drama: more drama in the first two acts, more comedy in acts three and four, and plenty of both sprinkled throughout.
According to the official website, The People’s Shakespeare Project, is a non-profit organization “committed to help foster a love of Shakespeare through performance and performance-based instruction.” This weekend’s performance was the first of the year for the People’s Shakespeare project, which previously performed “Hamlet” and “Julius Caesar,” among others at separate venues in Lancaster County.
Before the theater group’s performance of “The Merchant of Venice,” the play’s director and project founder Laura Korach Howell introduced it as Shakespeare’s most divisive and problematic play. Shylock, the villain, faces anti-Semitism from many characters, and ultimately loses all but his livelihood, with no consequence to the Christian protagonists. Howell therefore explained in her opening speech, many theaters will not show “The Merchant of Venice” due to concerns about Anti-Semitic themes.
However, in Howell’s director’s note in the playbill, she explains the choice to produce the play despite it’s controversial nature. “The Merchant of Venice,” says Howell, “makes us…look at ourselves and our tendency to despise those who look, act, and pray differently from ourselves.” Shakespeare, Howell argues, “did not create a cartoon Jew…but created a sympathetic…imperfect man trying to live his life in a society that hated his very existence.” She characterized the show as being about anti-Semitism, rather than promoting anti-Semitism. Thanks to Kleimo’s performance, Howell’s vision for the character—and of the show’s themes—came to fruition on stage.
The People’s Shakespeare Project ‘s next performance will be at Binn’s Park on April 22, for a fundraiser celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday. They will also perform “As You Like It” in Binn’s Park on June 7-10. The Project additionally sponsors Camp Will, a Shakespeare acting camp for sixth through ninth grade students.