In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare tackles themes of anti-Semitism, Christian hypocrisy, love, and revenge in a greed-ridden Venice, Italy, of the 16th century. Upstart Crows of Santa Fe brings the enduring characters of the controversial Elizabethan play — Portia, Antonio, Bassanio, and the vengeful merchant Shylock, among others — to vigorous life.
Shylock is one of Shakespeare’s more confounding characters. The merchant, who suffers anti-Semitic abuses at the hands of Antonio, is alternately seen as a Jewish stereotype and as a sympathetic character. When Antonio, who borrows a great sum from Shylock to subsidize Bassanio’s expenditures in wooing the wealthy heiress Portia, the merchant demands a pound of his flesh if he’s unable to repay the loan. It’s a devilish and delightful setup, made all the more lively in the Upstart Crows’ production by the cast — all of whom are between the ages of 10 and 18. You’ve never seen Shakespeare performed like this.
These kids aren’t afraid to take on some of Shakespeare’s darker-themed material, including Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity. “The Crows have always liked engaging with the more challenging plays,” says director Caryl Farkas. “After doing The Comedy of Errors, they wanted something more demanding and relevant.” Farkas brought in Rabbi Neil Amswych of Temple Beth Shalom to act as an advisor on the production.
“We started in September, and as the fall has been going along, there’s been wave after wave of anti-Semitic attacks, here in the States and in Europe,” Farkas says. “Art often gives us a chance to look, obliquely, at pressing social issues that you might not be able to discuss easily if you confront them head-on.”
Upstart Crows is all about inspiring a passion for Shakespeare among Santa Fe’s youth. Experienced Shakespearean directors, actors, and instructors in sword fencing and other skills lead student workshops and maintain outreach programs to area schools and community centers. Each year, the company mounts two full productions of Shakespeare plays, as well as staging dramatic readings through its Upstart Readers program and sponsoring the Youth Shakespeare Festival for high school teens. Each biannual project has two to three casts, so the young actors can collaborate in all aspects of production and mentor one another.
The Merchant of Venice opens with a 7 p.m. performance at the Swan Theater (1213 Parkway Drive) on Friday, Jan. 17. Evening performances continue each Friday and Saturday through Feb. 1. Sunday matinees take place at 2 p.m. starting on Jan. 19 and continuing through Feb. 2.