The Hobart Shakespeareans: Merchant of Venice

I had the privilege of attending the last performance of The Hobart Shakespeareans' The Merchant of Venice at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles on Saturday June 13. To appreciate just how much of a treat it was, let me describe the transformation of one classroom into a working theatre.

Rafe's classroom is relatively small: there's no windows to the outside, no vaulted ceilings, and cabinets and tables take up other wall space to give a very "cozy" feeling. There is a bleacher unit brought in to seat maybe 30 people on 4 levels. I sat in a row of chairs on the floor and other people were standing. The front of class has a 3-rise platform like an olympic medal ceremony, with musical instruments on the sides. Professional stage lighting stands in the back and sides of the class. One of them features looping video of backgrounds such as water through windows or a cross and Star of David to enhance the mood of the scene. Rafe and a past student operate the control board with a crazy array of switches and knobs.

The Play

Rafe opens the play with an explanation of the thousands of man-hours that have gone into making the production. He prepares the audience for some of the mature content of the songs by giving a context to the overall message of the play - racism, hate, and prejudice are not new. Then its the students' turn to give context through a musical message. They're performing on vocals, guitar, drums, and keyboard.

A classical guitar prelude is first. Most of the students had never played guitar before this year. This is the result:

Due to privacy concerns, I've taken down my videos from the performance. You can still watch videos of the Merchant of Venice from the official videographer above. My annotations to the videos I took are below.

Next, the students infuse a modern sound to give the play context in current events.

Another segment of the song:

Act 1, Scene 1 opens with Antonio and one of the theme songs for the play, Neil Young's "Heart of Gold". Shylock, the Jewish money lender, desires a pound of flesh as collateral for the bond he issues to his enemy, Antonio, if he cannot repay it.

As the plot progresses, Antonio gets news that his ships have been lost at sea. He cannot repay the bond and begs Shylock not to take the pound of flesh that he is due. Shylock and his daughter Jessica discuss the persecutions they have born as Jews in a Christian world and the repercussions of not taking what they are legally due.

There are various subplots of romance and deception, but unfortunately those where summarily deleted from my flip video camera as I tried to upload them from my vacation in Guatemala! Arrgh.

What remains are scenes from the trial where Shylock is legally given his pound of flesh, but only if he does it in a way that exacts not a drop of blood: impossible, this releasing Antonio from certain death. Message: the legal system may protect individual from discrimination, but it cannot change hearts or grant revenge at the expense of another's life.

Well, that's all I've got to annotate my descriptions. I'm especially bummed that my videos of Paul Simon's "Obvious Child", complete with brazilian drum corps, and the B52's Beach Party dance scene didn't survive. You can at least imagine the juxtaposition of 400 year old Shakespeare with modern pop culture to make the play come alive.

Bravo Hobart Shakespeareans and I hope that I can make it to "A Comedy of Errors" in 2010!

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