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The Carletonian

Merchant of Venice reflects on current political climate

<phobia, power inequities, the treatment of aliens, a flawed justice system: these could be themes from a play written in today’s political climate instead of from William Shakespeare’s 400-year-old The Merchant of Venice, the Carleton Players’ production this term.

The role of theatre in political discourse has been in the news a lot lately. In November, Hamilton made the news when a cast member addressed then Vice President-elect Mike Pence in a speech after the show. Saturday Night Live frequently makes headlines for its humorous portrayals of political figures, including most recently Melissa McCarthy’s performance as White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.

This election cycle sparked debates on what exactly the role of theatre and artists in political discourse should be. I talked with a few members of this term’s Carleton Players production, The Merchant of Venice, to find out their opinions on the role of theatre on a national and campus-wide level.

According to Director Pierre Hecker, theatre’s history with controversy and politics goes back much further than this past election. Hecker said, “Theatre has always been controversial, back to Aristophanes. I don’t think there’s ever been a moment when those two things haven’t gone together.” He added, “I think speaking truth to power is what great artists have always done, often at great risks to themselves.”

Hannah Gellman ’18, an ensemble member of the cast, agreed. “I think theater and politics are inextricably linked. Theater is at its best when it explores the complexity of human interaction and challenges people’s relationship to the world around them without giving any direct answers,” Gellman said.

But does the role of theatre change when occurring on a college campus? Hecker doesn’t think so. “In college or out of college, it’s still the job of artists to engage in and with the society in which they find themselves,” said Hecker.

The Merchant of Venice is a particularly fitting play to stage this term as it deals with issues that are as relevant as they were 400 years ago.

Noah Savage ’20, acting the role of Gratiano, reflected, “I think any art form has historically been used for political reasons. The Merchant of Venice, since it deals with how the law treats minority religions, is especially prone to that usage in the context of recent political developments.”

Addison Williamson ’20, who is playing the part of  the Prince of Aragon, said, “One of the most important lessons from Merchant of Venice today pertains to minority groups and how dominant groups empathize with them. It benefits no one to vilify those groups.”

Although the Merchant of Venice is a 400-year-old play, there is still much to learn from it. “We’re not trying to put on a sort of museum piece of a dusty old play,” said Hecker, “We are using an old play as a vehicle to explore concerns that are of immediate relevance to us.”

“And at the end of the day we are helping facilitate young people to grow and know their minds and wrestle with the questions of the day. But at the same time we are trying to do it in as serious and professional a way as we can,” reflected Hecker. On or off campus, that’s a powerful role for theatre to hold.

The Merchant of Venice opens on Thursday, February 16 at 7:30pm with shows Friday 2/17, Saturday 2/17, Thursday 2/23, Friday 2/24, and  Saturday 2/25 at 7:30pm and Sunday 2/19 at 2pm.

Tickets are available for reservation online.

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