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Davis, California

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Shakespeare-On-a-Shoestring presents The Merchant of Venice

Shakespeare-On-a-Shoestring (SOS), a no-budget troupe in the Department of Theatre and Dance, will present The Merchant of Venice from March 13 to 16.

The play is directed by Bella Merlin, a UC Davis theatre and dance professor. Merlin came up with the idea of the Shoestring series, which minimizes the use of costumes and aims to maximize drama and audience involvement, shortly after she began to work at UC Davis.

“I arrived in 2008 when the financial crisis was happening, and production budgets were being hacked,” Merlin said. “I wanted to tell the world that actors could tell any story despite the budget, so I made a series that deliberately had no budget.”

According to Merlin, the idea for the series came about by accident.

“I was at a conference in the Mondavi two years ago and we were talking about different facilities on campus,” Merlin said. “I realized that with the Wyatt [Pavilion] Theatre, we had a facility that was perfect for Shakespeare and it just came out of my mouth in the midst of this conference. At that point, I realized it was crazy that we hadn’t done something with it already.”

This particular staging of The Merchant of Venice features a minimal amount of props and almost no set decorations. Callie Heyer, a fourth-year dramatic art major who plays Bassanio, described this as a rewarding challenge on the actors.

“I think it’s really given the actors the forefront,” Heyer said. “We’re the ones who bring the color and excitement to the show in the way other shows compensate for by using sets and lighting.”

Except for the actor playing Shylock, the entire cast in this production is female. According to Merlin, this was unintentional.

“I initially wanted a multicultural cast, but Grapes of Wrath was running at the same time,” Merlin said. “That play is very realistic and thus needed men to be men and women to be women. I didn’t need that so I could cast whoever I wanted based on their performance.”

Pablo Lopez, a first-year Chicano studies and dramatic art double major who plays Shylock, expressed how the casting situation helps push him to embrace his role.

“As an actor, I feel no difference, but it allows me to imagine what it’s like to be entirely different, to be the one percent who are pushed aside,” Lopez said. “It allows my imagination to work. Also, theatre is mostly women and I’ve grown accustomed to being around women anyway. I was the only guy in my freshman seminar last quarter.”

Wendy Wyatt-Mair, a fourth-year dramatic art and economics double major who plays Portia, enjoyed working with Merlin as an educational experience.

“What’s great about working with her is that she’s the acting professor here, so she already knows most of us very well,” Wyatt-Mair said. “She had an acting intensive course over the summer — 10 hours a day for two weeks — so it’s nice to have a director who knows your work, your process and what you need to work on. She’s a director but she takes moments to teach us and work with us rather than just criticizing.”

Merlin said that this show aims to be accessible for most audiences.

“If anybody has never seen any Shakespeare before, this is a good entry point because we focus so much on trying to keep the story clear,” Merlin said. “The audience is the final, crucial player. We can’t do it without them.”

The Merchant of Venice will be performed at the Wyatt Pavilion on March 13, 14 and 15 at 7:30 p.m. and on March 16 at 2:30 p.m. Admission is free.



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