Once there was a writer named William Shakespeare with a most impressive skill set: He wrote fine poetry, he wrote plays for the commercial theater, and he really knew how to sell tickets.
Thanks to his wit, passion and insights into human nature, his plays are still filling seats more than 400 years after the fact.
Indeed, many of the titles attributed to Shakespeare are so familiar that they seem like relatives who drop by for a visit every few years.
Between Kansas City Repertory Theatre, founded in 1965, and the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, established in 1993, local audiences have seen four productions each of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Romeo and Juliet,” three of “King Lear” with another one planned this summer; and three each of “Julius Caesar,” “The Taming of the Shrew,” “The Tempest” and “Othello.”
But one title conspicuously missing from the list is one of the Bard’s most famous: “The Merchant of Venice,” which is revived fairly often in New York and the U.K. In Kansas City, it has been performed exactly twice in 65 years.
That changes Thursday, when a professional production of “Merchant” opens at the White Theatre in the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park.
The show is being staged by the Shakespeare Festival in partnership with the community center and Johnson County Community College. It plays this weekend and then moves to the Polsky Theatre in the Carlsen Center at the college for a second weekend.
Although written as a comedy in which young lovers overcome obstacles placed in their paths by meddling elders, the play is remembered for Shylock, a Jewish money lender who is reviled by Christians for his practice of usury even as they approach him for loans.
Shylock, whose appearance in only five scenes essentially makes him a supporting role, is one of Shakespeare’s great villains.
Shylock, in fact, became the signature role for a number of famous stage actors through the centuries. And he remains a subject of ongoing debate. Is he a caricature or a sympathetic character? Is Shylock a villain or a victim? Is the play anti-Semitic or a plea for tolerance?
The best answer from a 21st-century perspective might be “all of the above.” But Krista Blackwood, director of cultural arts for the Jewish Community Center, said she wanted to present the play at the White Theatre precisely because of these lingering questions.
Blackwood hopes it will spark a community conversation, which she plans to continue in May when British actor Guy Masterson performs the one-man show “Shylock” at the center.
“It’s getting the corner conversations about anti-Semitism out in the open,” Blackwood said. “History with its thorns attached is the only way we can learn and move forward. It’s a really important conversation we can have.”
The production can be traced to a meeting two years ago between Blackwood and Sidonie Garrett, the Shakespeare Festival’s artistic director. Garrett said she had always wanted to direct “Merchant.” And the festival, which performs each summer in Southmoreland Park, had never staged an indoor show.
But Blackwood’s programming budget couldn’t cover the entire expense of a professional show with a full complement of Equity actors. So she reached out to Emily Behrmann, general manager of the performing arts series at JCCC, and agreed on a partnership that would allow the show to be performed at the community center and the college.
Garrett said the play poses some formidable challenges. People who have never seen it or read it have heard of Shylock and assume he is the title character. He isn’t. The merchant of the title is Antonio, who borrows money from Shylock to tide him over during a tight spot in his shipping business. And Shylock’s perceived villainy doesn’t fit comfortably with the plot of this “comedy.”
“In Shakespeare’s time, a comedy certainly implies that no one dies,” Garrett said. “It’s a difficult and tricky play in that it doesn’t fit any one mold. Shylock himself doesn’t even die. So we were intrigued by the question of who is actually the villain.”
Shakespeare’s version of Venice, where he also set “Othello,” is a fantasy city that expanded his creative options.
“Shakespeare makes Venice even more tolerant than it actually was, a place where Christians and Jews could mingle in a way unimaginable in any other part of Europe,” writes Neil MacGregor in his book “Shakespeare’s Restless World.”
Venice, MacGregor says, offers a backdrop for Shakespeare to explore “uncomfortable ideas of race and religion” at a safe distance: “Here, in Venice, a Jewish girl might well elope with a Christian, and a successful black general could marry the daughter of a white Venetian nobleman.”
Blackwood suggested that the presence of Gary Neal Johnson as Shylock was likely to earn good will with the audience because of his performance each year as Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” at Kansas City Rep.
Indeed, Scrooge and Shylock have some important qualities in common, a thought that hadn’t occurred to Johnson until a reporter put it to him. Some scholars have written that Scrooge, who runs a money-lending business, is himself an anti-Semitic stereotype, although Charles Dickens never identifies him as Jewish.
“As I think about it now, of course, given their pecuniary ways and their livelihoods and their disappearance into themselves and the way they treat mankind, there are lots of similarities there,” Johnson said. “The fact that they are both the result of their own personal experiences, and the way they respond to adversity — and that’s badly, that’s monstrously.”
Johnson, one of the city’s most respected and recognizable actors, said playing a character as complex as Shylock with limited rehearsal time and a short run is a bit frustrating. But the role is rich.
“One is making a mistake if you go into it thinking: Which way am I going to go with Shylock? Is he going to be a monster or a victim who behaves monstrously?” Johnson said. “I look for the sympathetic element in him, as I would with any character. He has been the subject of violence, hate crimes, words, curses, hitting, beating. And his daughter runs off with a Christian, which essentially puts him over the top.”
An ironic footnote to the play is that the Jewish population in England during Shakespeare’s day was tiny. Jews had been expelled from the country by edict in 1290. Nonetheless, Shylock is one of two memorable Jewish villains of Elizabethan theater. The other was the unambiguously evil Barabas in Christopher Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta.” (In 2007, F. Murray Abraham performed both roles in repertory in New York.)
“Compared to ‘The Jew of Malta,’ this is a very humanistic portrayal,” Garrett said. “And there are a few moments where Shylock himself is funny.”
The last professional production of “Merchant” was in 1950 at the former University Playhouse near 51st and Holmes streets at what then was called the University of Kansas City. It starred British actor Clarence Derwent, a Broadway veteran who devoted a chapter of his memoir to the Kansas City production, which ran for only six performances.
In 1986 there was a UMKC academic production with a cast that included Robert Gibby Brand, who is in the show opening Thursday.
So why have theaters waited so long to put on this play? Alyson Germinder, a UMKC graduate student serving as the production’s dramaturg, has an opinion.
“The biggest issue with the play is the perception that it is anti-Semitic,” she said. “And the fear is that if a theater gives it a production, it gives a voice to that anti-Semitism. To us, the play reads as anti-Semitic because of the world we live in, because of the issues facing us in our community.”
And because it’s labeled a comedy, there is an abiding fear that it could be seen as mocking Jewish culture. Even so, she said, the play can be interpreted as a plea for tolerance.
“It’s a hard play to wrap our heads around,” she said.
“The Merchant of Venice” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday at the White Theatre at the Jewish Community Center; and March 26-29 at the Polsky Theatre in the Carlsen Center at Johnson County Community College.