If anyone can create a physical theater work that takes on William Shakespeare, immigration, financial inequality, abortion, women’s rights and basic human rights it is Aaron Henne, artistic director of the Los Angeles based theater dybbuk. In his somewhat exhausting, but provocative new work The Merchant of Venice Annotated or In Sooth I Know Not Why I Am So Sad, Henne takes on all of the above mentioned elements and turns a mirror on us all to help us see and acknowledge the historic injustice and persecution of Jews and what is often called “the other.” Now playing at the majestic First Congregational Church of Los Angeles in its concrete walls and high ceiling Shatto Chapel, Henne’s play points to two things I personally have been pondering: Why do I feel so depleted much of the time? And why do some things appear to rarely get better or change?
I am not a theater critic and there is no dancing in The Merchant of Venice Annotated or In Sooth I Know Not Why I Am So Sad, but it not only challenges the performers with deep, nearly constant dialogue, but it also taxes them physically. Every one of them remain on the stage for the entire performance, while performing they change costumes into Dressed in either gray coveralls, black and gold clothing that has a touch of Shakespearean costumes, and white coveralls; knocking over furniture, turning lights on and off, emptying bags of 100 dollar bills, sweeping the money up only to dump it on the floor (or another cast member) again, or standing on overturned trash cans while wearing large garbage bags, the brilliant cast of five partake in a story telling marathon, not a sprint. Their names are Joe Jordan, Adam Lebowitz-Lockard, Julie A. Lockhart, Diana Tanaka, and Inger Tudor and each one of them deserves special recognition for this five act, two and a half hour production with one intermission.
These performers sing, act, and display a physicality as only well-trained professionals can, while they effortlessly move between tragedy and comedy, the past and the present, or a fictitious Shakespearean character and a present-day news caster.
It is believed that Shakespeare wrote “The Merchant of Venice” between 1596 and 1598. In it, a merchant in Venice, Antonio, defaults on a large loan provided by Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. Basically Antonio defaults on his loan and Shylock, who is already furious at Antonio for his outspoken hatred for Jews, demands a “pound of flesh” in return.
Henne’s play shifts back and forth between the time of Shakespeare, the present, the Biblical times of the Old Testament, the birth/death of Jesus and the beginning of Christianity. This occurs with the help of live organ music performed by Andrew Anderson, recordings of disgusting statements by some of our current bigoted and racist politicians: Ted Cruz, Marjorie Taylor-Greene, Kevin McCarthy, and Donald Trump, and recorded reading of tweets by those and other so-called political leaders or pundits.
The other characters, who are alternately played by different actors, include Bassanio, Antonio’s close friend/suitor to Portia and later the husband of Portia; Gratiano, friend of Antonio and Bassanio/in love with Nerissa and later the husband of Nerissa; Lorenzo, friend of Antonio and Bassanio/in love with Jessica and later the husband of Jessica; Portia, a rich heiress and later the wife of Bassanio; Stephano, Portia’s servant; Jessica, daughter of Shylock, later the wife of Lorenzo; and probably more that I missed.
This play, The Merchant of Venice Annotated or In Sooth I Know Not Why I Am So Sad, Is more than an investigation into the persecution of the Jewish people by Christians and others, it a poignant statement on how humans treat each other and how throughout history, money is power. Paraphrasing on a line from Henne’s stunning dialogue, “Nothing really ever changes. It is just shifted around.”
The composer and music director was Fahad Siadat; Keyboardist: Andrew Anderson; Lighting Designer: Brandon Baruch; Sound Designer: Daniel Tator / Launch; Production Designer: Leslie K. Gray; Costume Designer: Kathryn Poppen; Sound Engineer: Andrea Allmond; Dramaturg: Dylan Southard; Contributing Scholar: Erith Jaffe-Berg, PhD; Consulting Scholar: Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, PhD; Historical Consultant: Jennifer Well JD/PhD; and Accent Consultant: Jim Johnson.
The Merchant of Venice Annotated or In Sooth I Know Not Why I Am So Sad performs again this coming weekend, May 19-21, 2023 at the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit their website.
Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: theatre dybbuk – Merchant of Venice – L>R Diana Tanaka, Inger Tudor, Adam Lebowitz-Lockard, Julie A. Lockhart, Joe Jordan – Photo by Taso Papadakis