Hard to believe that the first portion of Elements’ 2015 Pound of Flesh tour is over. Yesterday we started the trek out to Chicago, and the hours in the car gave us ample time to ponder the events of the past two weeks in Manhattan.
We love New York for many reasons, not the least of which are the many, many friends and kindred spirits that we have found in the city over the years. While this tour gave us a chance to reconnect, it also led us to many new places and faces, beginning with the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. The space is infused with history; just walking into the auditorium, you can’t help but feel that it demands a certain level of respect and attention. Mindful of this, and of the panel discussion that would close the evening, we were eager to bring our very best to this first performance of scenes from Merchant. As we trusted they would, Shakespeare’s words provided plenty of fuel for a dynamic and generous discussion between the audience and our distinguished panelists.
Elements’ ongoing charge of “education and conversation” continued with two Sonnet Workshops at the 92nd Street Y. A small group of Shakespearean language lovers gathered to delve deeper into the Sonnets, specifically exploring those that related themes from Merchant of Venice.
The Tishman Auditorium at The New School provided the next frontier for Merchant – this time including two full performances of the play. While the auditorium itself is not used for theatrical events, we found both the space and our hosts at the school very welcoming. Again, the Bard’s genius in exposing the heart of humanity brought many thoughts, reactions, and questions to the fore in the two post-show discussions.
A few days later and a few streets over, through the “rabbit hole” of the Everyman Café, Elements took up residence for a day in the intimate and gracious setting of the Classic Stage Company. As CSC is currently running A Month in the Country, we were unable to give a full performance of Merchant. Instead, we presented scenes from the play in Readers’ Theatre style—a tradition begun in New York, and sometimes referred to as “theatre of the imagination”—again paired with a panel discussion. It was clear from the beginning of the performance that this was an audience that was ready to get down to business. The multi-faceted conversation afterward touched on everything from Shakespearean scholarship to questions of religion and faith raised by the play.
Our final performance in Manhattan fittingly took place at St. Malachy’s – the Actors’ Chapel—just off Times Square. That evening we presented a completely different show, juxtaposing Christ’s trial scene from The Trial of Jesus by John Masefield with Antonio and Shylock’s trial scene from Merchant of Venice. The conversation afterward took on a slightly different tenor, and ended with Portia’s “quality of mercy” speech – which in this setting almost turned into a prayer.
It’s easy to feel intimidated in New York. But even in the midst of these great minds and great spirits, we felt only genuine respect, and a mutual hunger for deep, honest, and life-giving discussion. We cherish these new relationships, and look forward to meeting again.
At Classic Stage Company’s East 13th Street Theatre we performed a Readers Theater version of The Merchant of Venice. The idea of Readers Theater is that the audience becomes the character who is being spoken to, every line is said directly to the audience. It creates a different kind of community than a traditionally staged production and focused the listener on the language – what you hear is more important than what you see.
One of our panelists, the OBIE award-winning actor John Douglas Thompson describing the performance: “I got a lot out of it, I heard things I hadn’t heard before in the context of the language. And so I found the presentation really wonderful because it opened up new vistas for me.”
In the panel that followed one question came up that provoked quite a bit of discussion: What is more powerful or impactful – hate or love?
A very challenging and meaningful conversation has followed this question with many advocates for love being the most impactful, but Rabbi Hirschfield added a bit of a challenge to the discussion:
“I’m very interested in evidence-based approaches to life. Show me the evidence of a hate-based approach to life. What kind of world does it create for the hater and hated, and for the legacies of both? Show me the evidence of the world created by the lover and loved and the legacy it creates for them?”
Looking at The Merchant of Venice and the legacies of the characters, it is hard to imagine it becoming a legacy full of meaningful relationships, but what about us? What can we do to create a legacy of love?
The discussion continued with a heated discussion of whether or not the play was anti-Semetic, with many arguments for and against and Fr. Matt Malone offered this in his final parting thoughts: “The real genius of the play is that it reminds us it is better to discuss something without resolving it, than to resolve it without discussing it.”
Truly this was also the case for the characters in the play, how much better would it have been to allow the characters to discuss their differences rather than forcing Shylock’s conversion and therefore “resolving” the problem.
Thank you to all who joined us last night. It truly was a wonderful evening.
At the panel discussion at the Library for the Performing Arts last week, Jeff Robbins asked which is more powerful, love or hate? Which fuels us more?
“That’s a hard one to answer. . .” said Sr. Danielle Dwyer, “when you were talking about hate being addictive, I think about that as far as how it is empowering. On the other hand, to live in love, I find is much more sacrificial. I find it much easier to be irritated than to try to understand what might be happening in that situation. Love requires much more of the individual.”
Fr. Matt Malone, President of America Media, responded: “As a person of faith, I have to say that [the more powerful] is love. We are created in love by a God who is love, and ultimately I believe that we will live a life of love forever. But I think that is a very big metaphysical answer to the question. Hate is more practical in some ways. It is easier to destroy than to create, it is easier to take than to give, because of the nature of human desire. That ultimately cannot win, because it ends in nihilism.”
In so many ways, for Antonio and Shylock, the destruction in both of their lives throughout the play is rooted in their hatred for each other, and the willingness to destroy themselves in the process of trying to destroy the other. For both of them, hatred was the more powerful force in their lives. Perhaps that self-destructive hatred is one reason why we regard The Merchant of Venice as a cautionary tale, rather than a “comedy” as it is classified in Shakespeare’s canon.
I don’t know how to describe the moment when something on stage is transformative. You cannot make it happen. You work, so that all the doors are open for this moment of magic to rush in. When we rehearse we talk of being “available” so much so that I think it has now lost its real meaning. Being in the moment is another equivalent, but what I realize again, the moment of magic is not about you, the performer, it is about the life of the story set free again for another group of people. Its like we pay the ransom for this kidnapped, contained life by doing all we can getting out of the way, learning our parts, researching the story etc. to invite this moment of magic to live and in that mystery words are fleshed, people transformed and a new truth whispered into the audience’s ears. Best not to know how it happens, and an invaluable experience of which I am always deeply grateful to have been a part.