UCSB professor Irwin Appel makes no attempt to hide his passion for Shakespeare, and within seconds of my entering his office, he’s offering some of the insights he’s gained from seven years of teaching and directing the Bard in the university’s Naked Shakes program. “Shakespeare wrote in theatrical metaphor. You hear it most directly in Prospero’s speech at the end of The Tempest, where he refers to ‘the globe,’ clearly referencing his theater, the Globe,” he explains. “Everything he wrote had to embrace the theatrical setting as the central condition of its existence. What else would cause people to believe? When they started one of these plays outdoors at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, there were no fancy sets, no stage lighting, no amplification, and of course no electricity. So how did he make an audience believe? The answer is simple — the electricity is in the language! The writing makes the play — all of it — and that is the basic premise of Naked Shakes. It’s not festival theater, it’s not site-specific, and it’s not about imposing some directorial concept. The object here is to reveal the play and what it says. As a company we try to open up the work and reveal it and then get out of the way.”
For this season, Appel has chosen The Merchant of Venice, which presents a particular challenge due to its notorious anti-Semitism. As one would expect, Appel is not at a loss for words on this subject. “Believe me, as a Jewish person, I see the pain this text can cause, and I feel it. There’s something to the argument that says this play should not be performed after the Holocaust. But for us as a company, and especially working within the context of the university, these are the plays that matter. We don’t do A Comedy of Errors. That’s not what we are about. We want to engage with difficult issues in our work, and whatever else you may say about The Merchant of Venice, it remains clear that Shakespeare did not create cardboard heroes and villains.”
This production, which goes up at UCSB’s Performing Arts Theatre on Saturday and Sunday, September 8 and 9, will get an encore in another month when it is remounted downtown at Center Stage Theater as part of the 2012 Lit Moon World Shakespeare Festival. Appel waxes enthusiastic about the setup at UCSB, where, thanks to the Freshman Summer Start Program, he can offer the show for free and expect to see many young people in the seats for whom this may be their first experience with live Shakespeare or even live theater. “We will be doing talkbacks after the performances because there are issues raised by The Merchant of Venice that should be discussed. Showing the controversial nature of this work and then talking about it with students is, to my mind, exactly what a university should be doing today.”
For those who have perhaps forgotten some of what happens in a play they may not have read since high school, the moneylender Shylock gets his comeuppance after insisting in court that his debtor, Antonio, forfeit a pound of flesh to him in recompense for failing to repay a loan. Although there are many resonances with recent events — debt, risk, and the metaphor of “being underwater” all come swiftly to mind — Appel has resisted putting too much emphasis on this sort of relevance. “We didn’t want to set it on Wall Street,” he says, “because there’s too much else in terms of meaning that would be lost. This is very much about letting the play breathe and be just what it is. Everything we are doing with it is designed to preserve Shakespeare’s universality.”
Naked Shakes present The Merchant of Venice at UCSB’s Performing Arts Theatre on Saturday, September 8, at 2 and 7 p.m., and Sunday, September 9, at 2 p.m. Admission is free. Call 893-3022 for info.