Daniel Kaemon is no stranger to Shakespeare, having played Marc Antony in “Julius Caesar,” Hotspur in “Henry IV,” Malcolm in “Macbeth,” and Cassio in “Othello” among other notable classical roles. With Theatre Banshee’s newest production of “The Merchant of Venice” opening March 24th, he takes on Bassanio, a character at the center of two of the most interesting and important relationships in the play (Bassanio/Portia, and Antonio/Bassanio). Is Bassanio a callow youth, a greedy opportunist, a playboy, or something more complicated? Daniel talks about his work on the role:
Has “Merchant” and the role of Bassanio always been on your radar as a project you wanted to do?
Quite the contrary actually. It was a play I was unfamiliar with, and one that I perceived as anti-Semitic. And being Jewish, it was one I avoided.
What is the most interesting aspect of this role for you?
He’s flawed. He is, in the beginning at least, in a state of arrested development. The audience is by design on his side, and initially he’s easy to categorize as the romantic hero. But upon closer inspection, he puts the people closest to him in peril to advance his own interests. He puts a value and measurement on everything and everyone. He borrows and quickly blows through other people’s money without too much regard, literally almost has his best friend killed, and manages to jeopardize his new marriage along the way. And yet, he’s still likeable.
What is your take on the Bassanio/Antonio relationship?
Their relationship is perhaps one of the biggest question marks of the play. Why does Antonio go to such lengths and put his life on the line and attempt to help advance Bassanio’s quest for Portia and her fortune? As many times as you read through the text, there’s no singular justification. There are many people that conclude there must be some romantic relationship (realized or unrealized) between the two. In our production, and working with Time (Winters) who plays Antonio, we don’t see it that way…not that there’s anything wrong with that… or that it’s the wrong choice. For me, it’s very much a father/son mentor/apprentice relationship. Antonio’s selflessness is very much something you’d find a parent has for their child.
Can you describe the world of Venice created by this specific production?
Somewhere more in the 19th century with a few modern flares, not typical traditional Renaissance or Elizabethan.
Do you feel Bassanio is genuine in his feelings for Portia, or more of a fortune hunter at the beginning of the play?
It’s complicated, you know. Yes, unquestionably, he’s very much taken with Portia, and that’s supported in the text. But he’s also taken with everything she has to offer, and the idea of her. She’s the total package — beauty, brains, and billions. But I also think his infatuation and intrigue develop into a genuine love. You have to start somewhere before you get to love, so all in all, I think he’s coming from the right place, or at least a very real and human place.
What’s Bassanio’s journey over the course of the play?
In a nutshell, he grows-up. He gets over the hurdle of his arrested development. He learns there are both rewards and consequences that stem from his actions.
Do you have a specific method for approaching Shakespeare?
It’s all about text dissection for me. It’s figuring out exactly what the character is saying, what’s their intention, and how and why they’re using the words to both express themselves and go after what they want. The language is so heightened, that I try to interpret it for a modern audience, so it’s more grounded than lofty.
How is doing Shakespeare in a 99-seat theatre different from doing it in a larger space?
A smaller space allows you to be much (much) more subtle, and in many ways that compels you to be more specific in your actions and interpretation. You don’t have to worry about the guy 50 rows back.
What’s your biggest personal challenge in this role?
Creating the character arc. There are a lot of extremes thrown his way during the play (financial ruin, love, almost the loss of his friend, almost the loss of his wife), and those types of experiences stay with people and imprint themselves onto their being and psyche. He’s no different, those moments alter him, they make him grow up.
Did you have any preconceptions about the play before starting work on it? If so, how have they changed at all?
Yes, I thought the play was anti-Semitic, and as a member of the Jewish tribe, I had a bias against it. Now that I’ve been up close and personal with it, I’m starting to believe that Shakespeare used the play (in part) to reflect both the Venetian and Elizabethan cultures views of Jews, which was pretty awful. I’m torn because the intolerance is so prevalent throughout Merchant, and this production doesn’t shy away from it, but on the flipside, there’s nothing in the text that indicates its anti-Semitic themes are also shared and endorsed by the playwright. Some of the most memorable lines that really resonate on a human level come from Shylock.
Daniel Kaemon has previously appeared in War and Macbeth at Theatre Banshee. Tickets for Theatre Banshee’s production of “The Merchant of Venice” can be reserved at http://theatrebanshee.org/rezform.html.