All Over the Map
Fanny Kemble in Stratford, The Merchant of Venice in San Francisco, and Keep Ishmael in Chicago.
When Kemble got engaged, she didn't know that she would be leaving the London theater scene to become a slave owner on the second largest plantation in America, but that's exactly what happened after her husband's parents died and left a dubious inheritance. Like Kemble, Blythe is originally from London; she proposed this show to the Stratford Festival, where she has worked for over a decade, because it fascinated her to explore American slavery from a British perspective.
The first draft of the play was extracted verbatim from Kemble's journals, but this proved problematic for stage presentation. "You couldn't speak the way she wrote and read," says Blythe. What's more, Kemble's domineering husband edited her journals, so these documents contain only a partial record of her life. Eventually, Blythe tapped Peter Hinton to hone the script and direct the show, and he took a very different approach. "We're not journalists, we're theater people," says Hinton. "We're not only reporting what Fanny Kemble did; we're talking about why she did it."
Initially, Blythe was nervous about portraying Kemble because the journals quoted in the play are filled with racist remarks. "She was painfully honest," Blythe notes. "It's embarrassing to read some of the things she says." But now, the actress does not blush in playing some of Kemble's most revealing and awkward moments, much to her credit. "You're not going to run into many people in Canada who'll argue that slavery was a good thing," Hinton points out. "How do you show how controversial and shocking Fanny was in her age? While her accounts of black slaves may be a portrait of her racism, they also show her capacity for understanding human suffering."
When many modern audience members hear The Merchant of Venice mentioned, they think first of Shylock, even though he's not the merchant of the title. Strictly speaking, Antonio is; "the Jew" is a secondary character with relatively little stage time, yet he has captured the public imagination because of the play's association with European anti-Semitism. "It's not helpful to me to think of the play as anti-Semitic or not," comments Fish, who notes that Merchant has the potential to offend many different groups of people: "I've joked that the only people it leaves off the hook are the poor, and they've got bigger things to worry about!"
Adds the director, "I was attracted to the mercenary aspects of the play, the extent to which even the most romantic encounters take on a mercenary air." Large piles of bank notes are strewn about the set when the usurer plans his deadly transaction, and special emphasis is paid to the lovers' desire for wedding rings. "To a certain degree, they all are merchants," says Fish. As for Shylock, "He's human and he's complicated. One moment, he behaves with insane cruelty, and the very next moment, you see the man's broken heart. He's a source of endless discussion and mystery."
In 1997, U.S. News & World Report named Naperville, Illinois "the best place in America to raise a kid." Naperville native Mat Smart used this factoid as inspiration for his new rock musical Keep Ishmael, featuring music by composer Ethan Deppe. The show's central characters are tired of living up to the town's high standards, so they leave their suburban life and go on a quest full of adventure. The musical is being presented by White Horse Theatre Company in Chicago.
Smart is quick to point out that, although Keep Ishmael certainly has its humorous and satirical aspects, it is not intended to make fun of suburbanites. "I feel like a lot of people give the suburbs a bad rap, saying it's sort of a cookie cutter way of living your life," he remarks. "I disagree. I think you can have a really spiritual, meaningful time in the suburbs."
As indicated by its title, the musical is also inspired by Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Its main character is named Ishmael, though Smart notes that "he goes by Izzy, and only when he's in trouble do they call him Ishmael." There are other allusions to the Melville novel; Izzy and his friends travel the country in a Ford Pequod, and the musical's version of Ahab is a character named "A-Train," whose girlfriend dumped him so that she could go to Seaworld to work with Shamu. "Part of the story is about him confronting Shamu," says Smart. "He calls him 'the black and white whale.' "