PHOTO: From left, Julie A. Lockhart, Joe Jordan and Inger Tudo of theatre dybbuk perform in "The Merchant of Venice (Annotated), or In Sooth I Know Not Why I Am So Sad" in Los Angeles. The play comes to Portland as part of theatre dybbuk's residency in October. (Taso Papadakis/theatre dybbuk)
By ROCKNE ROLL
A modern – and thoroughly Jewish – twist on one of Shakespeare’s most controversial works is coming to Portland this fall.
Theatre dybbuk, the Los Angeles-based performance art group, is coming to Portland for an October residency centered on the company’s latest work, “The Merchant of Venice (Annotated), or In Sooth, I Know Not Why I Am So Sad.” The residency, which includes a number of other performances and participatory events, is sponsored by the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, the Mittleman Jewish Community Center, the Eastside Jewish Commons, Portland State University, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland.
The show, like all of theatre dybbuk’s productions, was developed by Creative Director Aaron Henne and the play’s cast, who were assembled before a word of the script was written. Henne also brings in a production designer, a script consultant and scholars on the areas the work will be centered around.
“We meet once a month and I’m bringing in research, but I’m also bringing in script pages and they’re serving as a kind of dramaturgical brain trust, a script consultancy,” Henne said of the development process. “So people are responding to the pages I’m bringing in and asking questions of it or providing their own research and I’m writing the script in dialogue with those discussions.”
“The Merchant of Venice (Annotated), or In Sooth, I Know Not Why I Am So Sad,” theatre dybbuk’s latest work, premiered in May of this year and will be performed in San Diego and San Francisco before coming to Portland and then on to Baltimore. It combines Shakespeare’s text with snippets of Elizabethan history and news events from the last three years into a modern look at how antisemitism and other forms of prejudice.
“[It] uses Merchant’s events to look at how during times of upheaval in society, we may seek to blame the, quote unquote, ‘other,’ whoever that other may be,” Henne said.
The theatre dybbuk cast will perform the full play Monday, Oct. 23 at 7:30 pm at the Lincoln Studio Theater on the campus of Portland State University in Downtown Portland. Ticket details are still being finalized as of press time.
“Everyone Aaron engages with is impressed by his thoughtful and accessible approach,” Federation Chief Development Officer Wendy Kahn said.
She met Henne at a conference in 2020 and participated in the process that secured the Covenant Foundation grant that’s helping to finance the group’s Portland residency.
“A full week with the entire team of theatre dybbuk showcasing their talents throughout the Greater Portland Jewish community is a true gift,” Kahn continued.
The group will also stage a companion performance installation, “The Villainy You Teach,” at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education Thursday, Oct. 26 from 12-2:30 pm. In this performance, cast members read Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” while another actor repeats Shylock’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech from Act III, Scene 1 for the entire performance.
“What we’re doing is we’re exploring what it is to take on language that isn’t your own or what it is to take on language that’s been given a lot of different meanings over many years,” Henne said. “How do we receive that? How do we think about that?”
The performance is designed so audience members can come and go without staying for the entire performance. There’s also an improvisational element, Henne said, particularly for the actor reading Shylock’s speech.
“It’s quite moving and provocative and funny,” Henne said. “It’s a good opportunity for people to experience something that’s truly happening in the moment.”
Other residency events include a lecture from Portland State University Professor Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, who was one of the consulting scholars for “The Merchant of Venice (Annotated), or In Sooth, I Know Not Why I Am So Sad,” on Shakespeare’s original play at 7:30 pm Thursday, Oct. 26, at the PSU campus.
“Inside his lecture,” Henne said, “we’ll be doing performed readings from merchant and maybe other reference points that he talks about. So quite literally, it’s like an illuminated lecture.”
Theatre dybbuk will also put on writing workshops designed to help community members explore their own stories. Two will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 24 at the Eastside Jewish Commons; a workshop geared to seniors from 11 am – 1 pm and a program titled “One Community, Many Stories” focused on the LGBTQ+ community from 6:30-9:30 pm. On Wednesday, Oct. 25, a more broadly focused version of the “One Community, Many Stories” workshop will be held from 6-8:30 pm at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center, with a selection of stories to be read by actors from theatre dybbuk. These workshops have been developed by the theatre dybbuk team and are tailored to the communities and institutions that host them.
“When we were talking about which event would be a good match for [the MJCC], we recognized that our “One Community, Many Stories” event would be a great match because it brings together storytelling and performance. It can serve multiple ages,” Henne said.
The theatre dybbuk team will also be conducting arts-focused leadership trainings for the Federation. The performances and lecture at PSU and the OJMCHE are part of a broader Portland festival celebrating the 400th anniversary of the publication of Shakespeare’s First Folio, a collection of plays which includes Merchant.
More information is available online at theatredybbuk.org/residencies or by emailing email@example.com.