Matching Shakespeare’s poetry was the least of the challenges confronting playwright Sarah B. Mantell when she decided to write a play expressing her difficult response to “The Merchant of Venice.” Challenging the Bard, the penultimate genius of theater and the English language? Heresy! But that is what Mantell has accomplished, with more respect than reverence, with her play “Everything That Never Happened,” opening this week at Boston Court Pasadena.
Written in the late 16th century, “The Merchant of Venice” has not aged as comfortably as other Shakespeare classics, despite gifting the world with such timeless lines as “the quality of mercy is not strain’d” and “all that glisters is not gold,” as well as Shylock’s eloquent “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech: “Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
But while the Bard’s poetry is profound, his depiction of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender greedily scheming for his “pound of flesh,” induces winces in more enlightened 21st-century audiences, and his female characters are only marginally less offensive. Those elements had previously stymied director Jessica Kubzansky when she made an attempt to direct “Merchant.”
“I simply could not reconcile the anti-Semitism and misogyny that is inherent in that play, much as I love Shakespeare and much as he has beautiful text,” she recalls. Upon first reading “Everything That Never Happened,” she was so excited that she emailed Michael Michetti, her fellow artistic director at Boston Court, “I think this has to be my 2018 play.” The reason, she says, is that Mantell “took those same challenges that I had, and answered them — and answered them brilliantly. Sarah is her own kind of poet for the theater. Her text is spare, modern, and colloquial, and it is standing fathoms deep — meaning it’s really spare, but what’s under every single thing is so rich, and that’s such a directorial gift. This play is terribly moving, and unbearable, and delicious, and it’s also really funny. That’s like a unicorn, it’s so rare to find a play like that.”
The questions “Everything That Never Happened” posits are summarized somewhat academically in Boston Court’s press materials: “What do we lose or gain by leaving our own culture? And what sacrifices does love demand of fathers and daughters, lovers and friends?” The same could have been asked of the theater’s recent production of Nigerian-American playwright Mfoniso Udofia’s immigrant-focused “Her Portmanteau,” as well as its “significantly re-envisioned” staging of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Kubzansky acknowledges the connection to those plays and the relevance to our current political moment, but says it wasn’t overtly intentional.
“When we put our season together, what we realized was that each play was sort of talking about the ‘other’ or someone who is leaving a culture or entering a culture that is foreign to them and what ensues,” she says. “We did not plan that. But as it turns out, that’s what happened.”
Mantell, who spent part of this year mentoring and teaching playwriting to theater students at Occidental College, is only about a year out of Yale School of Drama and jokes that she’s been “living out of a backpack” for most of that time. “Everything That Never Happened” is her first professional production. She was still a third-year grad student when she accepted an assignment from her professor and mentor, Tony Award-nominated playwright Sarah Ruhl. The assignment: read a Shakespeare play, and write a letter to the author. Ruhl’s response to Mantell’s letter: “You need to write a play about this.” Initially reluctant, Mantell wound up writing “Fight Call,” a love story that incorporates female death scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, and then the more deeply considered “Everything That Never Happened.”
What she discovered after a year of puzzling over “Merchant,” she says, was “a play lurking just under the surface about passing and assimilation and a lot of things that are really, really modern as well as relevant back then. Shakespeare had just never met a Jewish person, and a lot of his women are very one-dimensional. There are a bunch of things he just didn’t know. As soon as you look at the play through the lens of all the things he didn’t know, there was an entirely different story under there. So it felt less like I invented a different story or responded to it and more like I excavated it. … The language is very modern, and very funny, and very spare. It’s in many ways very much the opposite of the language in ‘Merchant.’”
Nominally set in 1596, “Everything That Never Happened” also employs some nonlinear time-bending while deploying four main characters from “Merchant”: Shylock, his daughter Jessica, her lover Lorenzo, and the servant Gobbo. In Mantell’s hands, those characters pay real consequences for their actions — consequences arising from being presented as three-dimensional characters with complicated emotions. Whereas in “Merchant” Shylock is vengefully (some might say cartoonishly) focused on getting his “pound of flesh” when his daughter elopes with a Christian man, Mantell presents an alternate storyline in which Shylock and Jessica maintain a truly loving relationship. That gives more meaningful, and modern, tension to their conflict.
“You might imagine any family for whom religion, culture or ethnicity is important, and a child choosing to abandon that to marry someone else, and what that might cost the family and the child in terms of all those very real-world stakes,” observes Kubzansky, who is quick to applaud her design team and cast for giving human dimension to Mantell’s themes.
Mantell admits that “wrestling the characters away” from Shakespeare was “terrifying” because of his canonical status. But she also found joy in it. “We’re in a moment where people are starting to see not just what these stories have given us, but also what we’ve lost when we retell stories that marginalize people,” she says. “Which, for all of his brilliance, Shakespeare did.” n
“Everything That Never Happened” premieres at Boston Court Performing Arts Center, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena, Thursday, Sept. 27, and runs through Nov. 4; $20-$39. Info: (626) 683-6801. sarahmantell.com, Bostoncourtpasadena.org