Brass Tacks' take on "Merchant of Venice" lets you decide who's a hero or villain


Brass Tacks Ensemble, The Merchant of Venice

The 2017 Brass Tacks ensemble is taking on three Shakespeare plays this season and stripping them down to their essence.

The [|Brass Tacks Ensemble] has been performing shows in Ann Arbor since 1999. The company is known for stripping down its productions to the most basic elements of theater -- the text of a script and actors acting -- and eliminating as many distractions as possible so the audience's attention is focused on universal themes.

According to artistic director James Ingagiola, “The more you add to a production in terms of costumes, props, sets, etc., the more you lock it into a specific story about very specific people in a very specific time.” Put another way, Brass Tacks prides itself on being the antithesis of spectacle theater.

Another difference between the [|Brass Tacks Ensemble] and other theater companies around the Ann Arbor area is conveyed in the name itself -- it’s very much an ensemble. The company selects a troupe, and then those actors work on techniques to strengthen their acting abilities over the course of the year. BTE often intentionally casts the actors against type to give them an opportunity to expand their ranges.

This year, the Brass Tacks Ensemble has decided to focus on three plays written by William Shakespeare. From a practical standpoint, Ingagiola chose [|The Merchant of Venice] as the second play of the season because it seemed like a good stepping stone from Much Ado About Nothing (a witty Shakespearean romp they produced back in the end of April) to Measure for Measure (a highly political, multilayered Shakespearean dark comedy about justice and duty that they plan to put up this fall).

But from an artistic standpoint, Ingagiola says he was attracted to this play as a director because of the inherent challenges in the text. “Why do we continue to produce a play that is so problematic? [The Merchant of Venice] is a controversial play because of the treatment of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender -- the abuse he endures, the constant conflict between him and the Christians that make up the core of Venetian society. Is the play anti-Semitic? Or are the characters anti-Semitic? If the play is anti-Semitic, then what value do we get from producing it in our era? And what about the rest of the play, which has nothing directly to do with Shylock? If we lean heavily on the previous questions with our production, are these scenes filler? How do we create a cohesive whole?”

Creating a cohesive whole is important to Ingagiola, who believes it’s vital to find a way to tie together classical plays with a unified perspective: “I believe that every production of a classical piece should have a point of view -- not so much that it dominates the actual written material, but enough that it shows that the director and the actors have thought about the themes and have worked to highlight those themes that jump out for them.”

This is a tall order, but one that Ingagiola seems excited to engage with. According to Ingagiola, there are many philosophical questions embedded in the script, but one of the most fundamental questions is actually what type of play this is: “Is it a comedy where the 'good guys' defeat the villain and live happily ever after? Is it a tragedy where the victim of society's racism is stripped of everything he has, both materially and spiritually? Or is it something in between?”

Don’t expect to find any answers to this question (or any other questions) in this production. “We will be performing as actors 'presenting' the play -- with the understanding that we still have a lot of the same questions that many of the audience members are going to have. … We're committing to each of the characters, we're finding the funny moments in this comedy, but we're not pointing out who are the 'heroes' and who are the 'villains.' We're simply saying, ‘Here's the play. You decide.’”

Toby Tieger has directed, acted in, and written plays over the last 10 years, and sees theater as often as he can. He is a building supervisor with the Ann Arbor District Library.

Brass Tacks Ensemble's "[|The Merchant of Venice]" is at Kerrytown Concert House, 415 N. Fourth Ave., Ann Arbor. The show runs August 3-5: Thursday and Friday at 8 pm and Saturday at 2 pm and 8 pm. Tickets are $15 ($5 for students) and available at the door.