Monthly Archives: July 2016

New ‘Merchant Of Venice’ Recasts Shylock As A Sympathetic Everyman


Real life father and daughter Jonathan and Phoebe Pryce as Shakespeare's Jewish moneylender Shylock and his daughter Jessica, in a new production of The Merchant of Venice.i

Real life father and daughter Jonathan and Phoebe Pryce as Shakespeare’s Jewish moneylender Shylock and his daughter Jessica, in a new production of The Merchant of Venice.

Robbie Jack/Corbis via Getty Images


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Real life father and daughter Jonathan and Phoebe Pryce as Shakespeare's Jewish moneylender Shylock and his daughter Jessica, in a new production of The Merchant of Venice.

Real life father and daughter Jonathan and Phoebe Pryce as Shakespeare’s Jewish moneylender Shylock and his daughter Jessica, in a new production of The Merchant of Venice.

Robbie Jack/Corbis via Getty Images

Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice is a troubling comedy.

The play’s villain is Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. He gives one of his Christian tormentors a loan on the condition that if the merchant doesn’t repay, Shylock gets a pound of the borrower’s flesh.

While Shylock does give a famous speech that nobly decries de-humanization of the Jews, the play is full of anti-Semitic language and ideas.

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre has a production of The Merchant of Venice on tour. It’s in Washington, D.C. right now, and it’s gotten good reviews, especially for actor Jonathan Pryce, who plays Shylock. It’s his first time in the role; he tells NPR’s Robert Siegel that he never thought he’d play Shylock. “I never thought I would be appearing at all in The Merchant of Venice. It’s a play I’ve never in the past liked, and when they asked me, from the Globe last year if I wanted to do it, my immediate reaction was no.”

Interview Highlights

On why he said no to the Globe

I’ve never liked it. I had always considered it to be a racist play, an offensive play. It’s billed as a comedy, I always thought it wasn’t particularly funny. So I said no, and immediately regretted it … I asked for time to re-read it, and reading it from Shylock’s point of view, thinking I would play Shylock, and also reading it in 2015, the political situation in the world today, the fear of the alien, fear of the immigrant — it became a became a very relevant piece, and it has huge resonances and echoes of what’s happening today.

On the Yiddish dialogue that’s been added between Shylock and Jessica

What … our director wanted to do was to bring out the, and to emphasize the storyline of Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, who leaves the household; she says “This house is hell,” and she goes and marries a Christian, taking all of Shylock’s money. What it does, it gives them a context … it’s very often the case the person who’s abused becomes the abuser and he’s very controlling of his daughter and I think that’s also what we wanted to emphasize, that Shylock is a human being who has been constantly abused, then reviled and spat upon and treated badly, so you see, it gives him a reason to do what he did. So what we wanted to do was to have that scene, that father and daughter scene — ironically, played by a real father and daughter, that’s my daughter, playing my daughter.

On reimagining Shylock

The production tries to humanize him. I mean, you introduced him as the villain of the piece — I do not see him as the villain of the piece at all. But I see Shylock in 2016 as a kind of Everyman figure. He’s every immigrant, he’s every person who’s trying to escape. And it becomes a very universal piece — otherwise, I don’t think it’s palatable.

Rachel Chavkin Loves Chaos, And With 3 Shows In The Works, It Shows


Hadestown — a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus -- is one of two off-Broadway shows director Rachel Chavkin has running right now. Above, from left, Shaina Taub, Lulu Fall, Damon Daunno, Nabiyah Be, Amber Gray, Chris Sullivan and Jessie Shelton.i

Hadestown — a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus is one of two off-Broadway shows director Rachel Chavkin has running right now. Above, from left, Shaina Taub, Lulu Fall, Damon Daunno, Nabiyah Be, Amber Gray, Chris Sullivan and Jessie Shelton.

Joan Marcus/Matt Ross Public Relations


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Hadestown — a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus -- is one of two off-Broadway shows director Rachel Chavkin has running right now. Above, from left, Shaina Taub, Lulu Fall, Damon Daunno, Nabiyah Be, Amber Gray, Chris Sullivan and Jessie Shelton.

Hadestown — a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus is one of two off-Broadway shows director Rachel Chavkin has running right now. Above, from left, Shaina Taub, Lulu Fall, Damon Daunno, Nabiyah Be, Amber Gray, Chris Sullivan and Jessie Shelton.

Joan Marcus/Matt Ross Public Relations

Avant garde theater director Rachel Chavkin’s career is exploding. Sitting in one of her shows might mean sitting in silence or knocking back shots of vodka, while an actor sings from War and Peace right next to you. Chavkin has two shows running off-Broadway now and a show opening on Broadway this fall.

Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is a musical based on a 70-page section of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. Denée Benton plays Natasha, opposite Josh Groban, in the role of Pierre.i

Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is a musical based on a 70-page section of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Denée Benton plays Natasha, opposite Josh Groban, in the role of Pierre.

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Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is a musical based on a 70-page section of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. Denée Benton plays Natasha, opposite Josh Groban, in the role of Pierre.

Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is a musical based on a 70-page section of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Denée Benton plays Natasha, opposite Josh Groban, in the role of Pierre.

Matt Ross Public Relations

Songwriter and playwright Dave Malloy has worked with Chavkin on many projects — including the musical that’s coming to Broadway; Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. It’s based on a 70-page section of War and Peace. And during an earlier production of the show, the cast was invited to perform at a swanky New York club.

“Afterwards,” Malloy recalls, “we were all hanging out on the roof deck and there was beautiful swimming pool and we did not have swimsuits, but Rachel charged in. And we ended up just all diving into the pool in our clothes and it was wonderful. And that kind of celebration and, like, love of life finds its way into her shows.”

When Chavkin jumps in, it seems like everybody — from actors to audiences — follow. Her shows happen not just in front of the audience, but all around them.

“I mean, I love chaos — honestly,” she says. “So what I’m interested in is creating a really rigorous environment, in terms of every nook and cranny of it being in the world of the world, helping to tell the story of the play; whether that’s the narrative or the culture of the play, in some way. But then, at the same time, leaving space to watch the world spin.”

Right now, one of those spinning worlds is her production of Hadestown. It’s a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus — Eurydice, Persephone and Hades are all there, singing contemporary folk and jazz by songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, looking like Brooklyn hipsters in their vintage clothes.

Director Rachel Chavkin looks on during a rehearsal for Hadestown. i

Director Rachel Chavkin looks on during a rehearsal for Hadestown.

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Director Rachel Chavkin looks on during a rehearsal for Hadestown.

Director Rachel Chavkin looks on during a rehearsal for Hadestown.

Matt Ross Public Relations

Chavkin convinced the New York Theatre Workshop to tear up their stage and auditorium to create a kind of theater in the round, with beat-up old chairs. She says: “It felt like what the story wanted was a Greek amphitheater of sorts, but that also felt like a barn — and this feeling of everyone has gathered around this tree to tell a story in dark times.”

Actress Amber Gray is plays Persephone in Hadestown. She’ll also be in Great Comet — the Tolstoy adaptation — on Broadway this fall.

“I think a lot of the art that turns her on is epic,” says Gray. “And the means she uses to tell those stories are quite epic and sometimes messy on the stage. But, they are so tightly choreographed.”

The other show that Chavkin has running right now is the opposite of epic, but no less tightly choreographed. Small Mouth Sounds takes place at a silent meditation retreat, which means there’s barely any dialogue at all. Playwright Bess Wohl wrote pages of backstory about each character, as well as detailed stage directions, based on her own experience going to one of these retreats.

“Everyone comes with this incredible need, which is: I wanna change my life,” says Wohl. “So, right there, you have something that feels really dramatic. And then there’s also this great obstacle, which is: I can’t use words! So, you know, need and obstacle is, like, the sort of basis of drama.”

Wohl met Chavkin over coffee to talk about the obstacle of staging a mostly silent play. She remembers Chavkin saying: The audience should feel like they’ve been on a silent retreat.

“And I think that eye to, sort of what the experience is for the audience, is something that she brings to all of her work,” Wohl says.

Certainly, Chavkin’s staging of Great Comet on Broadway this fall will immerse the audience in the world of 19th-century Russia — actors will be all over the Imperial Theatre, while some audience members sit on the stage, and vodka will be served. Recording superstar Josh Groban is making his Broadway debut, playing the gloomy, suicidal Pierre.

The 35-year-old director will also be making her Broadway debut. And Chavkin admits, given her avant garde roots and punk rock vibe — she has tattoos with quotes from all her shows — it’s a bit surprising to find herself on Broadway.

“It’s never been the ultimate trajectory for me — it’s a trajectory,” she says. “And I think, you know, as is probably clear from all these three projects, I’m most turned on by doing different things constantly that, of course, there’s a conversation between them. But, yeah. It’s exciting.”

Which means this September even more people will get a chance to jump in the pool with Rachel Chavkin.

‘Easy’ Writer: Walter Mosley’s Passion For Bringing Black L.A. Stories To Life


Author Walter Mosley with his father, Leroy Mosley.i

Author Walter Mosley with his father, Leroy Mosley.

Courtesy of Walter Mosley


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Courtesy of Walter Mosley

Author Walter Mosley with his father, Leroy Mosley.

Author Walter Mosley with his father, Leroy Mosley.

Courtesy of Walter Mosley

Ask Walter Mosley what he does, and he’ll say, simply, “I’m a writer.” And he’s written a lot: 52 books, about 30 short stories, and another 30 or 40 articles, he says. While most writers specialize in one or two types of books, Mosley refuses to be constrained. He’s written mysteries, science fiction, erotica, young adult fiction, plays, opinion pieces and essays. He’s even penned a slim book that instructs would-be fiction writers on how to get started.

“I have all these things, I’m continually writing them, and people say ‘Well I can’t sell that,'” Mosely says. “And I say, ‘well that’s okay, we’ll just publish it, don’t give me any advance and we’ll see where it goes.’ You know, because the idea of writing…if you want to get rich, you go into real estate.”

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But it’s his Easy Rawlins series that made Walter Mosley famous.

The most recent book in the series, Charcoal Joe, was released this summer. But the first book in the Rawlins series, Devil in a Blue Dress, was written in 1990. That story is set in 1948, when Los Angeles was adjusting to its new population of black migrants from the South, who came to work in war-related industries. Those experiences, which were vividly portrayed in that novel, which later became a movie starring Denzel Washington. Mosley’s tale of love, political corruption and racial intrigue became a best-seller. Former president Bill Clinton famously became one of his biggest fans.

The Easy Rawlins series has also brought Mosley honors: he was chosen as the 2016 Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, their highest honor. The lifetime achievement award puts him in the company of past Grand Masters like John LeCarré, Ross McDonald and Agatha Christie.

David L. Ulin, a former book critic for the Los Angeles Times, says the Rawlins novels are fine mysteries, but that Mosley goes beyond the genre. “I think he’s operating in the tradition of Balzac or Dickens, who wrote sort of broad social novels with large casts of characters, moving across a variety of classes and social spheres, and also in which the city — Paris or London, in Walter’s case, Los Angeles — becomes a character in its own right,” Ulin says.

The cover of Walter Mosley's mystery novel Charcoal Joei

The cover of Walter Mosley’s mystery novel Charcoal Joe

Karen Grisby Bates


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Karen Grisby Bates

The cover of Walter Mosley's mystery novel Charcoal Joe

The cover of Walter Mosley’s mystery novel Charcoal Joe

Karen Grisby Bates

In the Easy novels, the city is important, the people even more so. Mosley says he had a very specific objective: he wanted to write about the lives he saw around him growing up in Los Angeles. It was part passion, part mission: “One of the things that I understood was that you don’t exist unless you’re in the literature. And that doesn’t include the history books. And the black people in California, they just weren’t remembered. Nobody was telling their stories.”

Fortunately, there were stories aplenty. As a boy, Mosley listened to his father and his father’s friends talk over backyard beers about politics, music, and finessing the city’s notoriously racist police. Those stories helped shape the Easy novels, and enabled Mosley to paint a vivid portrait of L.A.’s evolving black community.

Ulin says the books span a critical period in the city’s evolution. “Many, many things change from ’48 to ’68 in Los Angeles, particularly in terms of race relations, racial culture, racial divisions, etc., which are at the essence of what the Rawlins books are tracing.”

The novels move from the pre civil-rights era to the late sixties, when Easy has a steady day job but still occupies much of his time seeking answers for people who can’t or won’t go to the police. By Little Scarlett, the ninth book, Easy has become a private eye, and the Watts riots have reduced his old neighborhood to ash. But after Blonde Faith, the eleventh book, Mosley was stuck. The novel ended with Easy driving off a Malibu cliff.

Fans were devastated, but Mosley didn’t see a way around it. “I had no future for Easy,” Mosley says. “And so I decided I was going to stop writing him. I didn’t think he was dead, but I did think I was going to stop writing him.”

And he did. For six years, Easy was just…gone. Then, Walter Mosley had an epiphany:

“My father and his family story had kind of come to an end at that point for me. And it was now my story. And if Easy was going to go on, I was going to have to put down these other people’s interpretations of the world and use my own.”

Which is exactly what he did.

In 2013, Easy returns in Little Green, a story about a black teen who disappears into a hippie commune after a bad acid trip. It was 1967; the setting was the legendary Sunset Strip. It was a time when disaffected youth — activists, runaways and dropouts — turned Sunset Boulevard into a roiling scene each night. Mosley saw it all with his own eager, teen-aged eyes:

“Ten thousand hippies every night are marching barefoot down the street,” he remembers, “getting high, talking about new philosophies and religions and notions and trying to create a new culture…as they say, a counter culture.”

Author Walter Mosley.i

Author Walter Mosley.

Marcia E. Wilson /Karen Grigsby Bates


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Marcia E. Wilson /Karen Grigsby Bates

Author Walter Mosley.

Author Walter Mosley.

Marcia E. Wilson /Karen Grigsby Bates

In this latest book, Charcoal Joe, Easy has settled into life: he’s the co-owner of a detective agency, his two adopted children are doing well, and he has a fiancee — a beautiful flight attendant. But when a black Stanford graduate student goes missing, the kid’s uncle — a feared gangster known as Charcoal Joe — asks Easy for help. Of course, complications ensue.

Part of Easy’s attraction is his humanity. Old-school private eyes did what they wanted, consequences be damned. Mosley says Easy doesn’t have that option. “You arrest Sam Spade and he just says ‘you know, I’ll just stay in jail. I don’t have to answer you,'” he says. “But if you have a child at home that needs to be fed and protected, you have to figure a way to answer that policeman’s question and also get yourself out of jail.”

Mosley says the next Easy installment will probably focus on the aftermath of the Vietnam war. It shouldn’t be long. Mosley is quick — and prolific. “I only write three hours a day,” he says, “but I write three hours a day, every day, 365 days a year. I just write and write and write.”

Which makes Walter Mosley’s legion of fans happy, because now they can just read and read and read.

How Can Success Still Make You Feel Like A Failure?


Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Failure Is An Option

About Lidia Yuknavitch’s TED Talk

Writer Lidia Yuknavitch’s early failures made her feel unworthy of success. Now, she says, those moments push her to find worth in herself as a writer.

About Lidia Yuknavitch

Writer Lidia Yuknavitch discovered her calling after an interrupted journey as a competitive swimmer. Her writing erases the boundaries between memoir and fiction, explores gender norms and the vivid minutiae of the body.

She was inspired by Ken Kesey (with whom she collaborated on a collective novel project at Oregon University); her latest book, The Small Backs of Children, stands as a fictional counterpoint to her memoir The Chronology of Water, which has built a cult following.

When Beliefs Fail Us, How Do We Move Forward?


Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Failure Is An Option

About Casey Gerald’s TED Talk

Over the course of his life, many of Casey Gerald’s core beliefs have failed him. He says he’s learned that clear-eyed doubt can sometimes be better than belief.

About Casey Gerald

Casey Gerald began his career in economic policy and government innovation at the Center for American Progress, and he has worked as a strategist with startup social ventures such as The Future Project as well as companies like The Neiman Marcus Group.

Born and raised in Dallas, Gerald received an MBA from Harvard Business School, and a BA in Political Science from Yale. He founded an organization called MBAxAmerica and has been featured on MSNBC, in The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Guardian, and he has appeared on the cover of Fast Company, which also named him one of the “Most Creative People in Business.” He currently serves on the advisory board of NPR’s Generation Listen.