Whether you love or loathe Shakespeare, "The Merchant of Venice" just may be the play to see. So says Jared Sakren, artistic director of Southwest Shakespeare Company. The theatre troupe's production of the Elizabethan tale premieres Thursday at Mesa Arts Center.
"This particular play isn't done too often, and there are a lot of problems with it," says Sakren.
For one, it features a Jewish character so clownishly stereotypical that it's raised the question of whether Shakespeare was anti-Semitic. It also seems to switch, mid-action, from a drama to a comedy, asking audiences to laugh moments after sitting through a dark courtroom trial scene.
But there's another reason to watch: Sakren, a notable in the theatre world, will play the role of Shylock, the play's controversial Jewish antagonist. It's his first acting gig with the company and his first anywhere in about four years.
"It's a role I've never played and one I probably should play," Sakren says by cell phone as he scours the Valley for authentic-looking props to complete the play's on-stage look. "I have so many mixed feelings about it. I'm daunted, excited, moved by (the character's) story, challenged by memorizing all the lines, and thrilled. It's an absolute thrill to be acting on stage with the company."Shylock is remembered as one of Shakespeare's most memorable characters and one of the most unforgettable villains in literature. While he provides a vehicle for Shakespeare to exploit Jewish stereotypes for comic effect, the character is no one-dimensional stooge. He's a man who has suffered much at the hands of his fellow men, a man pushed - understandably - to his breaking point. He is both cruel and tragic, blood-thirsty and piteous.
Sakren has appeared on Broadway, off-Broadway and on national tours. His background includes teaching, performance and directing credits with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Yale School of Drama, American Conservatory, Denver Center Theater Co. and Arizona Theatre Company. His students have included Frances McDormand, Val Kilmer, Annette Bening and Kelly McGillis. He has served as artistic director of Southwest Shakespeare Company since 2000.
"The Merchant of Venice" was made into a 2004 movie starring Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons, and Dustin Hoffman has played the role of Shylock on stage in London.
"There are sparks," says Sakren of Southwest Shakespeare Company's take on the play, set in 1938 Italy. "There's electricity on stage. I think we're going to knock people's socks off."