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Karin Coonrod's MERCHANT OF VENICE to Launch Peak Performances' 2017-18 Season of Works by Women

Karin Coonrod's MERCHANT OF VENICE to Launch Peak Performances' 2017-18 Season of Works by Women

Peak Performances will kick off its 2017-18 season-which consists entirely of works by women-with a visionary production of The Merchant of Venice from director Karin Coonrod and her Compagnia de' Colombari.

This American Premiere of the production follows a run in the still-extant Jewish Ghetto in Venice, Italy, last year, which marked the 500th anniversary of the ghetto's founding and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. With the play's themes of insiders and outsiders, love and hate, justice and mercy and, above all, what it means to be human-and Coonrod's casting of five Shylocks of varying race, ethnicity and gender-this Merchant of Venice is as timely as ever.

Long characterized as anti-Semitic, The Merchant of Venice was frequently staged in Nazi Germany. In an essay about the production, contemporary performance critic Jana Perkovíc notes, "The task for any director staging this comedy since the Holocaust is to find a way to its core humanism, and its provocative questions of justice and mercy, without succumbing to apologia. Coonrod embraces this task, with interventions into the tone, structure and staging; pointing out the motherly relationship of single father Shylock to Jessica; emphasizing the hypocrisy of Portia's appeal to mercy; zooming in on the losses that abound in this play."

In an effort to progress from the convention of portraying Shylock as either comic villain or tragic hero, Coonrad has cast five actors of different races, creeds, nationalities and genders to share in performing the role: Sorab Wadia, Frank Rodriguez, Michael Rogers, Myra Lucretia Taylor and Steve Skybell. In the world of the play, where money and celebrity are valued above all, Shylock's character continues to expose the hypocrisy of the dominant culture. Coonrad's splitting of this role serves to unveil the complexity of Shylock's character in a way that does not ignore his Jewishness, but rather unlocks the universal humanity of his being, and reveals the injustice of a controlling system.

The cast alsoincludes Reginald E. Cathey ("The Wire," "House of Cards") as Antonio, Linda Powell as Portia, Michelle Uranowitz as Jessica, Paul Spera as Lorenzo, Francesca Sarah Toich as Lancillotto, Abigail Killeen as Nerissa, Karim Sulayman as Salanio, Chris McLinden as Salarino, Dietrice Bolden as Balzarina and Titus Thompkins as Bassanio. The production features an original score by Frank London, Grammy Award-winning founder of The Klezmatics.The creative team includes scenic / lighting designer Peter Ksander, costume designer Stefano Nicolao, dramaturgs Walter Valeri and Davina Moss, and musicians Frank London and Paul Vasile.

As a court room drama, The Merchant of Venice hinges on this concept of justice: Will the court lean towards Shylock's plea for humanity or Portia's argument for mercy? While Portia's judicial knowledge rings true, her manipulative appropriation of mercy as a Christian virtue neglects its place as a fundamental principle within Judaism. Coonrad sympathizes with Shylock's bearing witness to this and his powerlessness as an ostracized member of society,

Yet for Coonrad, "the play seems to dig deeper into the heart of mankind beneath these two uncompromising poles of justice and mercy; Shakespeare turns us to the mirror and opens the soul of our humanity. For any director the challenge is to tear the play out of the unexpected, to revive its beating heart, to uncover what we must know now... In the world of the play, a mercy never expressed for the Jew in the street is conveniently required of the Jew in the court."

Following the success of this production's initial run in the Ghetto in Venice, Compagnia de' Colombari has performed it at venues ranging from the Summer Theater Festival in Bassano del Grappa to the Padova Prison. In both cases, Coonrod found that "the attention shown to the performance of the play demonstrated that Merchant... is a play for our own time." As Perkovíc notes, "Merchant is a play that never be a comedy again, perhaps should not have been a comedy then, yet is a comedy," but its place in the canon remains immovable. "Learning how to speak with, to and about texts like these is one of the great tasks of our time."

Compagnia de' Colombari's The Merchant of Venice follows the company's texts&beheadings/ElizabethR, which won critical praise in the 2015 BAM Next Wave Festival.

Performances of The Merchant of Venice will take place at the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University (1 Normal Ave, Montclair, NJ) September 19, 22, 23, 24, 27, 28, 30, and October 1 at 7:30pm. Critics are welcome as of September 22 for an official opening on September 25. Tickets, affordably priced at $20, can be purchased at or 973.655.5112. Running time is approximately two hours, with no intermission.

Companion Programming:

An invitation-only Roundtable Conversation with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and a select panel of Shakespeare scholars will take place on September 23 at 4pm. Participants will include David Scott Kastan, George M. Bodman Professor of English at Yale University;James Shapiro, Larry Miller Professor of English at Columbia University; Naomi Liebler, Professor of English at Montclair State University; and Adam Rzepka, Assistant Professor of English at Montclair State University.

On September 24 at 1:30pm, Shaul Bassi, associate professor of English and director of the International Center for the Humanities and Social Change at Ca' Foscari University of Venice, and author of Shakespeare's Italy and Italy's Shakespeare: Place, "Race," and Politics, will give a talk entitled "Shakespeare in the Ghetto, the Ghetto in Shakespeare." He will discuss the history and present situation of the ghetto of Venice, the place where a cosmopolitan Jewish community has lived since the early 16th century; and will compare the facts of the ghetto with Shakespeare's fictions, considering parallels, prejudices, echoes and resonances. The event will take place in the Presentation Hall of MSU's School of Communications and Media.

On September 26, at 6:30pm, in the Alexander Kasser Theater, Teresa Fiore, Inserra Chair in Italian and Italian American Studies at Montclair State University, will lead "Venice as a Metaphor for the World," a discussion with Coonrod and Alessandro Cassin, Deputy Director of Centro Primo Levi in New York, on otherness, immigration and religion. Peak Performances presents this event in collaboration with the Inserra Chair in Italian and Italian American Studies.

Coonrod will also share reflections and responses in a Community Conversation that is free and open to the public, in the Alexander Kasser Theater following the September 30 performance.

About the Artists:

Karin Coonrod (Director) is a theater artist whose work has been seen and heard across the U.S. and around the world. Hailed by The New York Times as "prodigiously inventive" and "galvanic," and by The New York Observer for "clear-eyed imaginative intelligence," Coonrod's most recent works include her own play, texts&beheadings/ElizabethR, at the Folger Theatre in Washington, DC and at BAM/Next Wave Festival (2015), Shakespeare's The Tempest at La MaMa Theatre in New York City (2014), Monteverdi's Orfeo at Palazzo Simonelli in Orvieto, Italy (2014), Gertrude Stein's The world is round is round is round in upstate New York (2013), and Shakespeare's Love's Labor's Lost at The Public Theater (2011). She is founding director of the acclaimed Arden Party Theater Company in downtown New York City 1987-1997 (during which time she won an Encore Award for her direction of the American premiere of Roger Vitrac's Victor or Children Take Over). She is also founding director of Compagnia de' Colombari and is currently on the faculty of the Yale School of Drama.

Based in New York City, Compagnia de' Colombari was born in 2004 in Orvieto, Italy, where the company re-imagined the medieval mystery plays and performed them in the streets and piazzas of Orvieto. Having revitalized the tradition of theater during Orvieto's Corpus Christi Festival each spring, the company launched a parallel theatrical tradition in New York, Strangers and Other Angels. Since 2008, the company has created and performed More or Less I Am (inspired by Whitman's "Song of Myself") all around New York City (2009-12); Everything That Rises Must Converge from Flannery O'Connor's short story) in Rome and on tour in the United States (2009-2015); The World Is Round Is Round Is Round (based on Gertrude Stein's story) performed at Arts, Letters, Numbers in upstate New York (2013); Andras Visky's Juliet/Giulia, performed in a late medieval courtyard in Orvieto, Italy (2012); Monteverdi's Orfeo, performed in the Palazzo Simoncelli in Orvieto (2014); and Karin Coonrod's texts & beheadings/Elizabeth R, performed at The Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C. and at BAM/Next Wave Festival in New York (2015), will add two new performances this year. The company produced The Merchant in Venice in the Venice Ghetto in July, 2016.

Peak Performances (Executive Director, Jedediah Wheeler) isa program of the Office of Arts and Cultural Programming at Montclair State University and has been honored by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts with an Arts Citation of Excellence and Designation of Major Impact. Programs in this season are made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State, a Partner Agency of the National Endowment for the Arts; the New England Foundation for the Arts' National Dance Project, with lead funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; Alison and James T. Cirenza; Holly and Robert Gregory; and The Honorable Mary Mochary.

Photo by Andrea Messana

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