Sara Saho, Cole Mazaher, and Sarah Price in a scene from “Cabaret.” Peoples Bank Theatre, in a joint effort with Marietta College Department of Theatre, will present “Cabaret” and “The Merchant of Venice” in Marietta over the next couple of weeks. (Submitted)

‘Cabaret,’ “Merchant of Venice’ Opening In Marietta

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For centuries theatre has been tasked with providing a lens through which political and social climates can be examined. Whether utilized to honor the god Dionysus in the city-state of Athens some 2,500 years ago or to entertain a riverside crowd in Marietta, OH; it’s a powerful tool, and one that the Peoples Bank Theater, Hipp Stage Productions and Marietta College Theatre Department have been collaborating through for the past several years.

This year that very association brings us productions of both Cabaret in the Peoples Bank Theater and The Merchant of Venice in Muskingum Park; marking the fourth iteration of Marietta’s Shakespeare in the Park.

Cabaret, a musical set on the precipice of Hitler’s rise in Weimar Germany, chronicles the romance between floundering American writer Clifford Bradshaw and flamboyant cabaret performer Sally Bowles. The work scrutinizes the outcome of evil unexamined, the horror of complacency, and the place of personal dramas within the big scheme; all to the artful execution of wry show tunes.

In Shakespeare’s Merchant, Antonio, the merchant of Venice, is trying to help his pal, Bassanio, woo the gorgeous and wealthy Portia of Belmont. He does so with a loan of 3,000 ducats, financed by Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. Things go awry, all while supplying some of the most iconic lines in the history of the English language and exploring achingly disparate themes of love and othering.

The actors taking part in the production are a series of pre-professional students from all around the country — some of them hailing from as nearby as Ohio University Athens and some as far flung as Denver, CO.

“I’m in a fun boat, playing Portia in Merchant and Sally in Cabaret; they’re large, dream roles for me, for sure – but they’re very different,” said Margo Tillstrom, who will be a senior in Ohio University’s acting BFA program this fall semester. “Sally lives this very frivolous lifestyle and she chooses intentional ignorance to get through her life in the midst of a very scary political climate. Portia, on the other hand, is in a position where she is very restricted because of her status and the expectations placed upon her. She still finds a way to take matters into her own hands, and to take action. It is interesting to play one who takes action and one who hides – and both roles say something about what it meant to be a woman in both time periods.”

“I think that is very important to use theatre as a vehicle to help explain what it is to be a human and alive in your current period,” said Cole Mazaher, a recent Kent State University graduate who portrays Gratiano in Merchant and Emcee in Cabaret. “If you do it the right way, I think that all theatre can be adapted to reflect current events. To me, theatre is my most powerful tool to influence change – not that we’re here to tell people what is right and what is wrong; but we are here to help open their eyes to consider what is happening around them. In our country, right now, a lot of people are very angry and very afraid, and both of these shows reflect similar realities.”

“The play (Merchant of Venice) has a reputation of being anti-Semitic; but after the Holocaust, public perception of the play changed,” said Andy Felt, the director of The Merchant of Venice and an associate professor of theatre at Marietta College. “I think that you can do the pay straight – exactly as Shakespeare wrote it; and because he was not a hack or a bad playwright, he fills all of his characters with enormous humanity, whether they are the hero or the villain. In a time when we seem to be scarily close to the same sentiments in Weimar Germany or even late 1500s England, it seems like a timely moment to be having these conversations.”

The festival has been providing aspiring theatrical artists a place to take part in a summer stock production since its creation. Actors are housed in a Marietta College dormitory and provided meals throughout their time involved in the productions. The actors are treated as professionals with equity contracts, although most of them are not far along enough in their career to have procured those quite yet.

“Compared to a lot of summer stocks, this is really lovely,” said Katelyn Crall, a student from SUNY Fredonia who traveled to take part in the productions. “A lot of times you’re outdoors or in a tent and you’re not very well furnished – and Marietta is just beautiful, too.”

Although this year marks the first that there are two performances featuring the same actors occurring simultaneously, last year the festival featured a production of Oklahoma! in the People’s Bank Theatre and The Taming of the Shrew in the park, which were combined thematically.

“We decided to expand the festival this year, and it’s been a huge step forward,” said Felt. “The city has been more and more supportive of what we do. The new administration at the college has also been incredibly supportive, literally putting their money where their mouth is. It’s all come together very well, and we have been able to bring in young pre-professionals who will hopefully have a fantastic experience in Marietta. We’d like word about the quality of our facilities and our program to spread.”

“I think that is very important to use theatre as a vehicle to help explain what it is to be a human and alive in your current period,” – Kent State University graduate and actor Cole Mazaher

Geoff Coward, the director of Cabaret, as well as a member of the Hippodrome/Colony Historical Theatre Association (the non-profit that manages the Peoples Bank Theatre,) said that when plans to re-open the long-defunct theatre that would become the Peoples Bank Theatre began to percolate, he was determined that the theatre would be utilized to create theatrical works that were being put together by the community.

“It’s fantastic to have two shows in repertory, one here and one in the park,” said Coward. “We also have a fabulous, up-to-date theater; and a great collaboration with Marietta College, and our auditioning process allows us to get some folks from all around to perform here, as well as people from the community.”

Although Shakespearan text can be difficult to decipher some 500 years after it’s initial creation, Kevin Paskawych, the production manager for The Merchant of Venice, said that he believes the way in which it is presented in the park, for free, changes that initial level of accessibility.

“I think that one thing that I have noticed with modern theatre is that a lot of people attend just to be seen; so, if they’re there as a patron, they are dressed up to look nice and pay a lot for tickets, and it’s not even really about the amazing job that the actors are doing,” he said. “Whereas what we have going on – especially with The Merchant of Venice, since it’s free – is making theatre accessible by its very venue. Families bring picnics and children, and they can enjoy the ambiance and the fireflies, and I just think it pulls theatre down so that it is on a very relatable level, even to people who have never seen a play before. It’s important to stress that we are a National Endowment for the Arts funded program, which is being threatened by purposed national budget cuts, and that we bring these shows to the community as a service.”

Felt echoed Paskawych’s sentiment.

“This isn’t just a case of academics putting on plays in our ivory towers for our own enjoyment and betterment,” said Felt. “We are literally asking the community to come out and tell us their stories. We’re telling stories that are created by and executed for the community.”

Cabaret will premiere at the Peoples Bank Theatre on Friday, June 23 and will run through July 2. Tickets are $20. The Merchant of Venice will take place in Muskingum Park starting June 29 at 8:30 p.m. Attendance is free, and the work will also be performed July 1, 2, 7, 8, and 9.