MORRISTOWN, NJ—In an innovative, tradition-defying rethinking of one of the greatest comedies in the English language, Morristown Community Players director Kevin Hiles announced Monday his bold intention to set his theater's production of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice in 16th-century Venice.
"I know when most people hear The Merchant Of Venice, they think 1960s Las Vegas, a high-powered Manhattan stock brokerage, or an 18th-century Georgia slave plantation, but I think it's high time to shake things up a bit," Hiles said. "The great thing about Shakespeare is that the themes in his plays are so universal that they can be adapted to just about any time and place."
According to Hiles, everything in the production will be adapted to the unconventional setting. Swords will replace guns, ducats will be used instead of the American dollar or Japanese yen, and costumes, such as Shylock's customary pinstripe suit, general's uniform, or nudity, will be replaced by garb of the kind worn by Jewish moneylenders of the Italian Renaissance.
"Audiences may be taken aback initially by the lack of Creole accents," Hiles said. "But I think if they pay close enough attention, they'll recognize that all the metaphors, similes, and puns remain firmly intact, maybe even more so, in the Elizabethan dialect."
Added Hiles: "After all, a pound of flesh is a pound of flesh, whether you're trying to woo a lady in 16th-century Europe, or you're a high school senior trying to impress your girlfriend with a limo ride to the prom, like in the last Merchant production MCP did in '95."
Though Hiles, 48, is a veteran regional- theater director with extensive Shakespeare experience, he said he has never taken such an unconventional departure. The Community Players' 1999 production of Othello was set during the first Gulf War, 2001's The Tempest took place on a canoe near the Bermuda Triangle, and last year's "stripped- down," post-apocalyptic version of Hamlet presented the tragedy in the year 3057.
Hiles said he became drawn to the prospect of setting the play in such an unorthodox locale while casually rereading the play early last year. He noticed that Venice was mentioned several times in the text, not only in character dialogue, but also in italics just before the first character speaks. After doing some additional research, Hiles also learned that 16th-century Europe was a troubled and tumultuous region plagued by a great intolerance toward Jews, historical context which could serve as the social backdrop for the play's central conflict.
"Even the names just sort of fell into place," said Hiles, who had been planning to center the play around an al-Qaeda terrorist cell before going with an avant-garde take. "Theater is about taking risks, and I'm really excited to meet this newest challenge."
Some of Hiles' actors, however, have reacted negatively to his decision. Some are worried Hiles lacks the knowledge and talent to pull off the radical revisionist interpretation, while others characterized it as "self-indulgent."
"I guess it's the director's dramatic license to put his own personal spin on the play he is directing, but this is a little over-the-top," said Stacey Silverman, who played Nurse Brutus in Hiles' 2003 all-female version of Julius Caesar. "I just think Portia not being an aviatrix does a tremendous disservice to the playwright."
Added Silverman: "You just don't mess with a classic."