By Kathryn Neves

 Since the very first year of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, audiences have fallen in love over and over again with Shakespeare’s “dramedy” The Merchant of Venice. It’s an appealing love story wrapped around a complex, fascinating study of religious and social tensions. And because of its popularity, the Festival has produced it a number of times! From fun and farcical to deep and complex, this play has evolved in its Cedar City productions over the years; and this year is perhaps more eye-opening and groundbreaking than ever before. Breaking down barriers between gender, race, and traditional vs. progressive theatre techniques, Melinda Pfundstein’s production of The Merchant of Venice is bound to be stunningly powerful. But before you see it this summer, take a look at our previous productions!

1962

 The Festival's first production of  The Merchant of Venice  in 1962

The Festival's first production of The Merchant of Venice in 1962

In the very first season of the Festival, The Merchant of Venice was an obvious choice. With its themes of religious tension and persecution, this show has always been a Utah favorite. According to the July 19, 1962 edition of the Iron County Record, the production was immensely successful: “Despite threatening weather, overflow crowds attended performances of . . . The Merchant of Venice.”

Of course, back in 1962, it was a very different production than what you might see today. Festival Founder Fred C. Adams stated in 1975 that “we were working with a totally inexperienced company with temporary settings and with limited time.  We played the story as a romantic comedy which I now feel was something of a cop-out . . . an easy way around what I feel to be the message of the play. It was the best we could do with the time, settings, and experience level with which we had to work.”

Director: Fred C. Adams
Antonio: Gary Magnuson
Shylock: Drew Moren
Portia: Gaylynn Sherratt

1968

Only six years later, the play was back by popular demand: as Adams stated, “Festival audiences have already enthusiastically endorsed The Merchant of Venice.” And as audiences evolved, so did the production. This time around, Shylock’s story of revenge and hatred was much more important than the romance between Bassanio and Portia.

Director: Brian Hansen
Antonio: Gene L. Eugene
Shylock: Richard C. Jamieson
Portia: Ellen Matthews

1975

 Margaret Bongiovanni (left) as Portia and Paul Craggs as Bassanio in 1975

Margaret Bongiovanni (left) as Portia and Paul Craggs as Bassanio in 1975

In the seventies, in the midst of reshaping racial relations in the United States, The Merchant of Venice was more relevant than ever before. Adams, in a 1975 edition of Utah Holiday magazine, stated that “to the audience, the play may be a warning to Americans that compassion must prevail. . . . We need to be reminded this summer that narrow definitions of man’s relationships will not survive. Shakespeare was telling us this over 300 years ago.”

Interestingly, this was produced in the first season after a balcony added onto the then in-progress Adams Shakespearean Theatre.

Director: Fred C. Adams
Antonio: Lon Huber
Shylock: Sam Tsoutsouvas
Portia: Margaret Bongiovanni

1983

According to director Margaret Hahn, the next production of The Merchant of Venice was all about harmony and understanding in a time of contention. “The action of the play concerns itself with the struggle for an ideal of harmony: in love, in friendship, in family bonds and religious bonds within the reality of a changing new mercantilistic world. . . . Even though Portia professes the law of mercy and love here, her actions quickly become merciless in their rigidity to that law. Shylock is guilty, but we have seen the betrayals and hypocrisies that have poisoned him.”

Director: Margaret Hahn
Antonio: Henry Woronicz
Shylock: James Edmondson
Portia: Katherine Moore

1992

The 1992 production focused on values and ideals— the way that characters clash because of what they believe in, whether religious, moral, or practical in nature. As stated in the director’s notes, “Shakespeare’s kaleidoscopic display of virtues and vices is crucial to the meaning of The Merchant of Venice. These blatant contradictions bring to life characters which otherwise would be mere abstractions in the world of the play. We recognize their humanity because of the unresolved conflicts within their souls.”

Director: Eli Simon
Antonio: George Judy
Shylock: William Leach
Portia: Deanne Lorette

2000

 Anthony De Fonte (left) as Shylock and Richard Thomsen as Antonio in 2000

Anthony De Fonte (left) as Shylock and Richard Thomsen as Antonio in 2000

Following the last several productions, the 2000 version of Merchant delved even deeper into Shylock’s complex character and fluid standing between hero and villain. From Ina Marlowe’s director’s notes: “The humanity and empathy that always flowed from [Shakespeare’s] pen makes Shylock too complex to be dismissed, too eloquent to be ignored. Shylock no more represents all Jews than Antonio all Christians, yet Shakespeare’s story sees even the oppressor destroyed by the world his hatred creates. Generations of anger, blame, and degradation combust, and the verdict of the court brings ‘justice,’ but no peace.”

Director: Ina Marlowe
Antonio: Richard Thomsen
Shylock: Anthony De Fonte
Portia: Kathleen McCall

2006

From prolific and powerful director J.R. Sullivan: “We must encounter the Merchant, the Lover, the State of Grace, and the Jew anew. The so-called ‘problems’ of the play become the center of its complications and life. Once again, ‘the form and pressure of the time’ is unpacked with the trunks that contain the old play.” This production brought us even closer to understanding both the differences and the similarities between Jews and Christians in a world full of religious tensions.

Director: J. R. Sullivan
Antonio: Michael Sharon
Shylock: John Pribyl
Portia: Sara Kathryn Bakker

2010

 Gary Neal Johnson (left) as Antonio and Tony Amendola as Shylock in 2010

Gary Neal Johnson (left) as Antonio and Tony Amendola as Shylock in 2010

In the Festival’s most recent production of Shakespeare’s masterpiece, a renowned actor, Tony Amendola, brought a complexity, humanity, and realism to Shylock in a way that stunned and amazed audiences. From a review in Salt Lake City Weekly, July 14, 2010, Dan Nailen wrote that “the tension between Christians and Jews in The Merchant of Venice isn’t the sole focus of the play, but it does have a massive influence on the plot, thanks to the boiling hatred between Shylock . . . and Antonio. . . . While Shylock is clearly the villain, Amendola fleshes him out in such a way that the audience can feel sorry for him as his world collapses around him.”

Director: Sharon Ott
Antonio: Gary Neal Johnson
Shylock: Tony Amendola
Portia: Emily Trask

Did you see any of these productions over the years? Tell us what you remember via our Facebook or Twitter feeds: #merchantusf