PVPA sees modern-day issues in ‘The Merchant of Venice’

Last modified: Friday, March 28, 2014
The Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School in South Hadley will present William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” March 14 through 16 at the Academy of Music, 274 Main St. in Northampton.

The play, directed by Chris Rohmann, tells the story of Shylock, a Jewish moneylender who is the target of prejudice and judgment because he is different than “the crowd.” Pushed too far, he seeks disproportionate revenge on those who did him wrong.

“The play deals with antisemitism and the exclusion of the outsider that resonates with the epidemic of bullying in our society,” said director Chris Rohmann in a phone interview earlier this week. “We created a modern-day prologue that addresses that bullying.”

Despite the play’s darker theme, it is typically identified as a comedy with three romances interwoven throughout the plot. The ways in which these romances weave through each other fuel the conflict of the play.

Gender inequality is another subject that the play will touch upon.

“Even in the 21st century, men still hold most of the ower — economically, politically and socially,” Rohmann said. “We turn that disparity on its head. The play’s outsider, Shylock, is played by the only boy in the cast and all the other roles — the Venetian Christians that hold all the power — are played by girls.”

In a play-within-a-play motif, the actors assume the roles of high school students producing “Merchant of Venice.” They wear incomplete Renaissance-style costumes and perform on a stark set, much like the sets of Shakespeare’s time. Sixteenth-century Venice is suggested by the use of projections of 19th-century paintings of city. Also, a 27-foot-long Venetian bridge was constructed for the play by PVPA students, under the guidance of faculty member Martin Bridge.

“We’re not performing a modern-day version of the play, but we never let the audience forget the modern overlay of the concept,” Rohmann said. At the same time, he adds, the production emphasizes the complexity of Shakespeare’s vision: “No one, Jew or Christian, behaves really well here. There’s no clear-cut good or evil.”

Performances are March 14 and 15 at 7 p.m., and March 16 at 2 p.m. Advanced tickets cost $12; $10 for seniors and military; $6 for students and children under 12 ($14, $12, $8 at the door). To purchase, call the Academy of Music box office at 584-9032, ext. 105, or visit academyofmusictheatre.tix.com.

— James Lyons