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Release: Immediate

University Theatres stages Shakespeare's 'Merchant of Venice' March 6-16

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- University Theatres Mainstage series will perform William Shakespeare's dark comedy "The Merchant of Venice" March 6-16 in E.C. Mabie Theatre of the University of Iowa Theatre Building. Performances will be at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, March 6-8, and Wednesday through Saturday, March 12-15, and at 3 p.m. Sundays, March 9 and 16.

In "The Merchant of Venice" Shakespeare weaves a complex web of love, greed and revenge, played out in a world where money makes the rules, prejudice is the norm, and it is often difficult to tell the villains from the victims.

Antonio, an Italian merchant, borrows money from Shylock, a Jewish money-lender, to help his spendthrift friend Bassanio woo the heiress Portia. Fed up with Christian insults, Shylock declines to charge interest but says, apparently as a joke, that he will instead extract a pound of Antonio's flesh if the loan is not repaid by a certain date.

When Antonio's ships are lost at sea and he can't repay the loan, Shylock, who is further annoyed by his daughter's elopement with a Christian, demands his bond, a pound of flesh. But in true business fashion Portia comes to the rescue disguised as an attorney.

Director Jon Beaird, for whom this production is a Master of Fine Arts thesis project, says "The Merchant of Venice" has held a special place in his theatrical vocation: "'Merchant' was the first play I actually read as a young child, so it always had this special place for me.

"But also I'm attracted to the darkness of it, and to the charm of it -- and the question of 'otherness,' the question of how outsiders fit into society. It's really a timeless problem -- how exactly each of us fits our piece of the puzzle into this big society. "

Beaird acknowledges that "The Merchant of Venice" is also a troublesome play for modern audiences, particularly because of its depiction of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, but he says that is only one of many sensitive issues.

"In this country it is a play that is shied away from, although it is one of the two most-frequently produced Shakespeare plays in Great Britain." Beaird acknowledges.

"The anti-Semitic content is distinctly there, but I think it's important to think about it in a different light. It's not just about anti-Semitism, but it's about an entire group of people who are living on the outside of society, and trying desperately to fit in.

"When you talk about 'Merchant' you have to talk about the position of Jewish people in an anti-Semitic society. But it also deals very much with how women fit into a society that's sexist. Other questions are also important -- the relationship between parents and children, relationships between men and men."

Beaird says he relishes grappling with these issues of human conflict, and also finds that one of the play's main attractions is its depiction of the struggle between mind and heart, between intellect and passion: "I've come to think of the play as a study in balance -- a play that tries to achieve a balance where intellectualism is given its full power and passion is given it's full power, and eventually a balance is achieved."

He also feels that these deeper, more universal issues provide some antidote to the anti-Semitism of Shakespeare's time that is reflected in the play. "Shylock is no more a villain than any of the other characters," he points out.

"All of these characters are flawed in some way. In the play, through identifying their flaws and pushing those flaws to the absolute maximum, they are able to come back to find some balance, and to be better human beings, and better able to work in the world."

Other artistic contributors to "The Merchant of Venice" are set designer Alison Ford, costume designer Tisha Janke, lighting designer Dorothy Png and sound designer Lindsay Kem. Janke recently won first place in an undergraduate design competition at the regional American College Theatre Festival.

Tickets for "The Merchant of Venice" at $13 ($6 for UI students, senior citizens and audience members 17 and younger). Tickets may be purchased in advance from the Hancher Auditorium box office. Any remaining tickets for each performance will be available at the Theatre Building box office one hour before curtain time.

Hancher box office hours are 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. weekdays, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and 1-3 p.m. Sunday. From the local calling area or outside Iowa, dial (319) 335-1160. Long distance within Iowa and western Illinois is toll-free, 1-800-HANCHER. Fax to (319) 353-2284. Orders may be charged to VISA, MasterCard or American Express. UI students may charge their purchases to their university bills, and UI faculty and staff may select the option of payroll deduction.

People with special needs for access, seating and auxiliary services should dial (319) 335-1158. The line is equipped with TDD for people with hearing impairment who use that technology.