From Athens to Venice – Acting in Renaissance 553 (Directing for the Early Modern Stage)

Cameron Taylor

16 November 2020

As a first year MLitt student in the Shakespeare and Performance program at MBU, I had the exciting opportunity to work as an actor for students who are currently taking the Directing for the Early Modern Stage class, taught by Dr. Matthew Davies. Students for the course pair themselves with one Early Modern play for the duration of the semester and choose a selection of scenes to direct and present for the rest of the class. At the beginning of the semester, the directing students held auditions in order to cast actors in the S&P program in their project scenes. After my audition, I was cast in scenes from two of Shakespeare’s most interesting works: The Merchant of Venice (directed by Robert McCarty) and the rarely performed Timon of Athens (directed by Trent Stephens). One of the most interesting aspects of acting for these scenes was to see just how different each director approached and played with the material.

For McCarty’s cut of The Merchant of Venice, three scenes were chosen: Bassanio disclosing his love for Portia to his friend Antonio, the Prince of Aragon attempting to win Portia’s hand in marriage, and the final scene of the play (with a modern twist). I portrayed the Venetian gallant Bassanio in the first and final scene, and I played Portia’s servant in the Prince of Aragon scene. Merchant is a play that is extremely notable for its unpalatable qualities when viewed through a modern lens. McCarty’s take on the play examines this unpalatability, while also expanding the scope of representation. For example, the Prince of Aragon becomes the Princess of Aragon. Instead of ending up with Portia, McCarty adapts the ending so that Bassanio and Antonio end up happily married to one another. As an actor, it was extremely interesting to see how a text can be adapted to our modern lens, while still exploring the original Early Modern text. Shakespeare’s texts are not immovable pillars but works from which new discoveries and readings can be found via a close reading. I appreciated McCarty’s willingness to explore the text through a new lens.

In a completely different choice of text, Trent Stephens decided to pair himself with Timon of Athens, a late tragedy born from a collaboration of Shakespeare and his contemporary Thomas Middleton. Timon is a bizarre, rarely staged play that is characterized by disappearing plot lines, sudden introductions of previously unmentioned characters, and a fourth act that amounts to an endless parade of disconnected vignettes. Such peculiarities of text make it a challenging, but fascinating play to work with. Stephen’s take on Timon is to focus on the trials of the lead character: a man driven to the point of madness when people, who he believes to be his “friends”, abandon him when he needs them most. Timon isolates himself in the woods and finds himself visited by figures from his old life who come to console him, taunt him, or steal from him. Stephens utilizes actors to play the role Timon’s personal demons/tormentors, taking the form of these past characters to mentally torture the misanthropic Timon as he lingers in loneliness, self-loathing, and insanity. Being able to work on this rarely touched work was extremely exciting to undertake. Whereas other Shakespeare plays all have classical iconography of specific productions forever associated with them, Timon is free of such connections. Exploring the world of Timon and taking on the role of characters who are both grotesque and oddly two dimensional made for an interesting (and fun) challenge.

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