Shylock the money lender, one of Shakespeare’s best-known characters, sparks back to life this weekend in an unusual dramatic broadcast being voiced by Davidson College students.
At 7:30 p.m. Saturday on WDAV-FM (89.9), 10 students in a senior-level English seminar called “Radio Shakespeare” will cap weeks of study and rehearsals with a live presentation of “Merchant of Venice.”
Radio dramas, once a popular staple, faded after television caught on in the early 1950s. Rarely are they heard today, even on niche radio.
Shakespeare scholar and Davidson English professor Cynthia Lewis, however, thought the college’s public radio station would be a good outlet for her students and simpler than producing a stage performance.
“She approached me timidly to see if we’d be interested in broadcasting it,” says Frank Dominguez, general manager of WDAV. “And to her surprise, I said we’d love to.”
Dominguez was a soft touch. He has acting credits in several Shakespeare plays, including a role as Friar Lawrence, who moves the plot along in “Romeo and Juliet.” Also, he loves radio drama.
Shakespeare is probably a good fit for the station’s audience, which comes to WDAV for classical music, Dominguez says. He’s been to a few rehearsals and says he’s impressed with the grasp the cast has of the play.
“They’ve got it well in hand. What they lack in polish they make up for in enthusiasm. And they really understand this text,” he says.
Understanding the text is key to bringing alive a script that’s four centuries old. Audience comprehension of the Elizabethan lauguage depends on the actor’s interpretation of the words, inflection and mood.
Under the leadership of Lewis, students began the course this semester studying the intricacies of the play and sophisticated literary criticisms. They also studied theory of radio performance and how “Merchant of Venice” has been presented through the centuries. (Little-known fact: at least three silent movies were made of it.)
Lewis came to Davidson in 1980 after doing her dissertation at Harvard on “Merchant of Venice.” She has led discussions with her students on the strong passions the play arouses and subtexts such as anti-Semitism in Shakespeare’s time. She thinks they know more about the play and its history than many Shakespearean actors.
“Merchant of Venice” was chosen, in part, because it didn’t depend upon slapstick visual comedy found in many other plays, Lewis says. Students have come up with sound effects for context, everything from rattling keys to a kazoo to signal the approach of a clown.
Because of the need for multiple roles for some of the actors, students needed to improvise different accents for different characters they portray.
And though it’s invisible radio, there’s a flash of costumes. Ellyson Glance, for example, voices three different men in the play, and she wears a different hat for each to help her keep in character. Christine Noah, who performs Portia, wears a corset symbolizing the social constrictions of the character’s station in life.
Other students in the production are Jessica Albano, Alex Baggott, Chris Blanchard, Mary Catherine Clark, Noah Driver, Jacob Fanning, Katherine Silva and Katie Wilkes.
Lewis says she’s found that radio creates an interesting experience for both the actors and the audience as it occupies a rare middle ground between reading a play and seeing one performed.
“This isn’t just reading into a microphone,” says Lewis. “It’s a full staging, but a staging of a different color.”
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