In conversation: Karin Coonrod and David Scott Kastan on ‘The Merchant of Venice’ returning to its roots

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Left to right: Linda Powell stars as Portia, and Adriano Iurresevich portrays Arragon, in a performance of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" by Compagnia de’ Colombari.

This year marks the intersection of two milestones — the 500th year of the formation of the Venetian Ghetto, the area of Venice where Jews were forced to live under the Venetian Republic, and the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, whose “The Merchant of Venice” is set in that ghetto. In commemoration, Compagnia de’ Colombari, an international collective of performing artists led by Karin Coonrod, lecturer in directing at Yale School of Drama (YSD), performed “The Merchant of Venice” in the Venetian Ghetto this summer.

Compagnia de’ Colombari was founded in 2004 as an international effort “to cross boundaries and bring disparate populations together,” says Coonrod. This event marked the first time ever that a production of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” took place in the ghetto in which it was set.

“The Merchant of Venice” is a play by Shakespeare in which Antonio, a leading merchant in 16th-century Venice, must default on a large loan provided by an abused Jewish moneylender named Shylock.

YaleNews recently spoke via email with Coonrod and David Scott Kastan, the George M. Bodman Professor of English, a scholar on Shakespeare, and one of the founding chairs of the event.

How did this production come to be?

David Kastan: My wife and I were in Venice, Italy, in 2014, walking around the Ghetto with a friend who teaches Shakespeare at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice. He told us that he was in charge of a cultural organization that was planning for the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the establishment of the Ghetto in 2016, and since 2016 is also the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, some way of drawing together these anniversaries seemed obvious. I immediately thought of Karin, whom I consider to be one of the greatest directors of Shakespeare in America, and I knew that she was the founder and artistic director of Compagnia de’ Colombari. Karin has directed countless brilliant productions of Shakespeare in the United States, and with the Italian connection and the company’s decade of experience in Italy, she was obviously the right person to work on this. It became a wonderful challenge to partner with Ca’ Foscari University and Beit Venezia [The Venice Center for International Jewish Studies]. Karin and I spoke regularly about the play and her production, so I was able to help as an unofficial dramaturge.

What was the most memorable part of being involved with this production?

DK: Karin and her actors are magicians. They transformed words written 400 years ago into wondrous theatrical experiences that enchant and inspire and also challenge and disturb. “The Merchant of Venice” is a play designed to make us uncomfortable and to remind us how hard it is to build a community and how much is lost if we fail to do so. Shakespeare’s play gives us a Venice unable to live up to its highest ideals. Those ideals were brilliantly on display in the numerous collaborations that have allowed the production of the play to take place this summer in Venice.

Karin Coonrod: Directing “The Merchant of Venice” in the Ghetto was a thrilling experience that involved actors from many backgrounds, mostly from Italy and the United States, but also Australia, France, and the United Kingdom. The rehearsal period was remarkably intense, but it brought us all closer together.

The play was presented mostly in English with some Italian, Veneziano, Judeo-Veneziano, Ladino, and Yiddish. The performers entered from all around the Ghetto to an opening number composed by Grammy Award-winning composer Frank London. The central feature of the production was the involvement of the actors who played Shylock: a different actor for each of the five scenes. This became the heart of the production to mark Shylock’s “return” to the Ghetto. In an effort to approach Shylock for his outsider-stranger quality and to mine deeper than the extremities of villain or victim, one woman and four men of varying ages and styles shared the role. At the center of the play at the escape of Jessica, the five Shylocks come together in tight circle as the entire company generates gossip and shrieks in laughter at the situation Shylock finds himself in.

What were some of the challenges you encountered while directing this production?

KC: We rehearsed in small un-airconditioned spaces, which in the Venetian heat was indeed a challenge for many of the actors. When we went to the Ghetto much of our rehearsal took place under the hot sun. Occupying the space of the Ghetto was another wonderful challenge as it is the dream of the company to be present and fully occupy the space. The set designer did not make a set, but rather a huge seating bank which was plunked down in front of the most beautiful architecture of the Ghetto, including the German and Italian synagogues. The performances, which took place in the open air, began at twilight and ended in the dark of night, without an intermission. Not only were we negotiating the outside space but we also found ourselves competing with the cicadas that generally came to a halt at 9:05 p.m.

Are there any plans to stage a similar production in the future?

KC: Our experience in the Venice Ghetto is a ground zero for all our future performances in other parts of the world. For our final performance we went to the Padova Prison and played for 100 inmates, involving 14 of them in the theatrical action against Shylock in the trial scene. It was an extraordinary experience for all because of the quality of the presence of everyone in the room. This performance was a fitting to end our great journey in the ghetto. We plan to make the North American premiere in New Jersey in September 2017.

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Bess Connolly: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324