Actors all atwitter over Merchant’s modern take

So, after rehearsal you’re going to meet up with friends, right?

Or you’ll at least call someone.

“No, we won’t have time,” Benjamin Koucherik said.

Why?

“Because we have to go post on Facebook,” he said, flashing his big smile.

This is a joke isn’t it? It has to be, because Swine Palace takes the world of social media to task in its production of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

Shakespeare, Facebook and Twitter will play out on the same stage when Swine Palace kicks off its annual Summer Fest with the bard’s classic on Tuesday, June 25, in the LSU Studio Theatre.

Of course, Venice will be the setting, but the year will be 2013, where characters will have access to iPhones and iPads and are always stopping to feed their social media habits.

“It looks at materialism,” Joanna Battle said.

She directs this production, and Koucherik plays Bassanio, whom he describes as a young guy who has explored different avenues in life, has blown his money partying and doesn’t understand why he has to be responsible for his debts. And he’s in love with the rich and beautiful yet detached Portia, played by Addie Barnhart. So, to court her, Bassamio must borrow money from the Jewish moneylender Shylock. Nic Hamel plays him.

“Shylock has disdain for the others,” Hamel said. “They have disdain for him, but he has disdain for them, because of their disdain. He’s actually genial about it at the beginning, but he’s pushed too far, and he seeks revenge by the end of the story. And he doesn’t like this youthful culture and doesn’t want any part of it.”

Shakespeare is believed to have written The Merchant of Venice between 1596 and 1598. The story is classified as a comedy, but most audiences remember its drama, particularly the speeches delivered by its key characters.

The play begins with Bossamio, a young Venetian of noble birth who has squandered his money. He’s in love with Portia but needs money to marry her.

See, Portia’s family is wealthy, and she has many suitors, two princes among them. So, Bossamio approaches Antonio the merchant, for a loan. Antonio doesn’t have the money and turns to Shylock.

Now, Antonio has a policy of never paying interest when borrowing money. Shylock agrees to Antonio’s stance with conditions: if Antonio isn’t able to pay the loan back by the prescribed date, then Shylock can take a pound of Antonio’s flesh.

Bossamio takes the money and wins Portia’s hand through a competition set up by her parents. Meanwhile, Antonio’s fleet of ships are lost at sea, and he is unable to meet the payment deadline.

And in that time, Shylock, who again is Jewish, becomes bitter when his daughter marries a wealthy Christian. So he demands his pound of flesh.

“There is anti-Semitism in this play, but we don’t focus on that,” Battles said. “We focus more on the showiness of Christianity, how the characters are into the trendiness of it.”

But the most notable aspect of this production is its adaptation. George Judy is credited for this. He’s Swine Palace’s artistic director, and he has compacted Shakespeare’s work in 90 minutes of a 2013 mindset. The story hasn’t changed, and really, the people are the same. It doesn’t matter if they’re occupying their idle time chattering face-to-face or on Facebook.

Shakespeare understood humans and their nature, which is why his stories fit into any generation.

So, the characters are consumed by technical devices in this production.

“It’s the idea that the more people have, the more they want,” Battles said. “And it’s become worse with social media, because now people can log on to something like Facebook and see what everyone else has, and they want it, too.”

And in the process, people spend more time on the computer, their iPhone and iPads talking to “friends” instead of actually spending time with people.

They don’t meet for a conversation over coffee to discuss their interests. They opt to spend their time staring at a computer screen.

“And in the end, they have all of these material things, but they really don’t have anything,” Battles said. “Because they don’t really have all of these friends. They have no personal relationships at all.”

Which perfectly plays into the personalities of The Merchant of Venice’s characters, especially when Barnhart describes her character Portia as detached person, who finds it difficult to open herself to others.

And Koucherik’s Bassamio is the kind of young man who wants what he wants, and he wants it now. Maybe he’s taken out a lot of student loans, maybe he’s spent his time partying in college, and now he feels he deserves an instant high position in life.

OK, so Bassamio isn’t exactly a college kid, but you get the picture.

And Shylock, though presented as the story’s bad guy, is principled.

“He doesn’t want any part of this youthful world,” Hamel said again.

“But there are disadvantages either way,” Koucherik added. “It can destroy you if you become consumed by it, but it can also take you down if you don’t adapt to it. The world moves forward and leaves you behind.”

Swine Palace’s modernized version of Shakespeare has made its actors think a little differently about the value of their relationships in a materialistic-driven world where cyber contact is becoming the rule of the day.

“You think about it, and you realize you can’t be 10 feet from your cellphone at any given time,” Barnhart said.

“So, then you start turning your cellphone off during rehearsal,” Koucherik said. “I mean, our focus needs to be here.”

That is, until after rehearsal ends.

“Then we have to run to our phones and start posting on Facebook about everything we did in rehearsal,” Koucherik said.

And tweeting.

Because there’s no time for anything else.

  • CAST: Tim Moriarty, Antonio; Michael Mentz, Salario; Spencer Labelle, Salario; Benjamin Koucherik, Bassanio; Ben Watt, Lorenzo; Cory Crew, Gratiano; Addie Barnhart, Portia; Amanda Clark, Nerissa; Scott Mitchell, Balthasar; Caroline Hebert, Servant; Nic Hamel, Shylock; Amar Atkinson, Morocco; Ben Phelan, Launcelot; Naticalie Cardona, Jessica; Margaret Lauve, Servant/Clerk; Joe Morris, Tubal; Billy Green, Duke.
  • ARTISTIC STAFF: Joanna Battles, director; George Judy, play adaptation; Nic Hamel, lighting design; Camilla Morrison, costume design; Chris Pyfrom, scenic design; Almeda Beynon, sound design; Anthony McMurray, props design; Evleen Nasir, stage manager.