Last spring, as she watched the presidential election cycle fester, Colleen Stovall thought that the time might be ripe to stage William Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice."
"I was sick of everything I was seeing," says Stovall, the producing artistic director of the Shakespeare Miami theater company. "You know, Shakespeare is a beautiful frame for whatever is contemporary. That's why he's a genius. It's not like you have to mine for his stuff. It's just there."
Shakespeare Miami, known for performing the Bard outdoors in parks in Miami-Dade and Broward counties for free, is expanding into Palm Beach County. The 11-year-old troupe's production of "The Merchant of Venice" runs Jan. 6-8 at Mizner Park Amphitheater in Boca Raton. Then, the show goes on a regional tour with weekend stops Jan. 13-15 in Coconut Grove, Jan. 20-22 in Pinecrest and Jan. 27-28 in Hollywood.
The romantic comedy about a 16th century merchant who defaults on a loan from a Jewish lender so he can court a wealthy heiress is famous for its anti-Semitic language and themes of bullying.
"It's like getting punched in the gut," Stovall says. "I had to talk the actors down. I said, 'If we're going to do this, you have to own it.' The play shows bullying. It shows people who are anti-Semitic. It shows it. It brings it out. It also shows people who are pushed to the edge and do bad things who just happen to be Jews."
Stovall remembers taking a friend, who was raised as an Orthodox Jew, to see Al Pacino in a 2010 production of the play at the Delacorte Theater in New York's Central Park.
"I was mortified," she recalls. "The language is strong. I said, 'I'm so sorry.' And he said, 'This play must be performed. It's important for people to see and hear those words — like 'Jewish dog' — and cringe like you did.' "
Stovall hopes to defuse some of the explosiveness with historical context in the program and in pre-show curtain talks.
"Basically, I'm going to talk about how Shakespeare probably never met a Jew in his lifetime," Stovall explains. "They were all expelled. I'm going to talk about Shakespeare's father, John, who loaned money at interest and was fined and put in jail. He got in a lot of trouble for it. That's why the character Shylock [the Jewish moneylender] is not held up as an evil Jew, but as a human being. He's truly the most human character in the play. And he gets the best and most famous speech: 'If you prick us, do we not bleed?' "
"The Merchant of Venice" runs Jan. 6-8 at Mizner Park Amphitheater at 590 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 6 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. For more information, go to ShakespeareMiami.com.
The show also will appear Jan. 13-15 to Barnacle Historic State Park, 3485 Main Highway, in Coconut Grove; Jan. 20-22 at Pinecrest Gardens, 11000 Red Road, in Pinecrest; and Jan. 27-28 at the ArtsPark Amphitheater, 1 North Young Circle, in Hollywood. With all performances, well-behaved children are welcome, but not pets.