London Actors Bring Merchant of Venice to the Lobero
Five actors working with no sets, no theatrical costumes, and the words of William Shakespeare — that’s the demanding formula employed by Actors From a London Stage (AFLS) in its touring production of The Merchant of Venice, which is at Lobero Theatre this weekend. Despite the London association, it’s a homecoming of sorts for the company, which was founded here 25 years ago. At that time, UC Santa Barbara drama professor Homer Swander found himself disillusioned with local schools’ stodgy methods of teaching Shakespeare. “He felt the plays should not merely be read, but seen and heard,” said Merchant actor Christopher Staines. Joining forces with his friend Patrick Stewart, a stage actor who would later become famous on TV’s Star Trek, Swander took matters into his own hands. AFLS was founded as an educational outreach program, with company actors touring the world to lead high school and college drama students in interactive workshops, lectures, and seminars. Today, the troupe is based in London and domestically at the University of Notre Dame, with Swander — now a Gaucho emeritus — and Patrick Stewart as its co-founding directors. Merchant marks the group’s fifth consecutive annual Lobero engagement.
The actors of Merchant — all of whom boast extensive acting experience on both sides of the pond — particularly enjoy educating students about the world of Renaissance drama. “Generally,” Staines said, “we’re in residence at universities. But in Santa Barbara, we’ll be working with younger kids as well. It’s exciting because with the young ones, we can really help them understand Shakespeare.” Jeff Mills, education and community programs coordinator for the Lobero, added that AFLS is set to host 35 workshops in four days, involving 950 local students, on campus at Westmont College and Carpinteria High School, among others. “They’re going to be bringing Shakespeare to life for these kids. Playing with meter and rhyme, getting it into their heads,” Mills said. “Plays are meant to be seen and spoken, not read.” Throughout the years, he’s had a bird’s-eye view of the actors’ effect on their young charges. “By the end of class, I’ve seen kids up and excited. They can see that these works are relevant to their lives. Especially the kissing scenes, like in Romeo and Juliet,” he laughed.
For adults, the Lobero performances should be equally engrossing. The five actors perform on a bare stage, and they don’t wear special costumes. “It’s exposing and exciting, all our own creation,” Staines said. “There’s nothing to hide behind. It’s on us to pull it off … you never know what’s going to be thrown your way.” Trained at Oxford, Staines is well known in London’s West End, having performed extensively at the Donmar Warehouse and National Theatre. But for him, AFLS has proved a new experience, especially given the intricacies and difficulties of staging Merchant. Because the five men cover every role, each one plays more than one character. Sometimes an actor will embody both characters in a two-person scene, distinguishing each figure with a unique mannerism or a simple prop — a change in accent, a pair of sunglasses. “It gives us an extra spurt of energy,” he said. “And it challenges the audience’s imaginations. We help them see two people when there’s only one.”
The actors also wear multiple hats behind the scenes. Unlike most theatrical productions, Merchant does not have an outside helper. Instead, the five men act as a directorial team. “We help each other,” Staines explained. “During rehearsals, if all five of us are in a scene, one actor will keep popping out of formation to look at the overall staging and see what we need to change.” The play is thus open to all kinds of interpretation, and the actors take liberties.
Staines, for example, plays the Prince of Aragon as a flamboyant Spaniard. (Master Will would no doubt have enjoyed this.) Staines felt he and his comrades are enlivening Santa Barbara audiences with a unique, unprecedented retelling of the show. “We bring an extra element of fun to the play,” he said, pausing. “But how on earth five people put on Merchant of Venice in its entirety, I don’t know. It’s just like walking a tightrope, scary and exhilarating at the same time. By the end, we do feel like we’ve finished an acrobatic feat.”
4·1·1 Merchant of Venice, presented by Actors From a London Stage, shows at Lobero Theatre on Friday, March 10 at 7 p.m. and Saturday, March 11 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20-$50. For more information and to order tickets, see lobero.com.