Shakespeare by the river

Classic tale of love, money in Muskingum Park opens tonight

Those walking through Muskingum Park in the coming days may happen upon a comedic tale of love, money, prejudice and social injustice.

The fourth annual Shakespeare by the River production will feature “The Merchant of Venice,” beginning tonight and continuing through July 9.

“Some of our favorite moments are when there are people who may have never seen a play or never seen one of Shakespeare’s plays walking by and just stopping and watching,” said director Andy Felt. “It’s a very simple, great way to connect with the community.”

The play is a collaboration between Hipp Stage Productions and the Marietta College Theatre Department.

The performances are free and feature local actors as well as pre-professionals from colleges as far away as New York, Michigan and Colorado. The students are paid a small stipend and stay in the residence halls at Marietta College.

“They really elevate the production,” said Felt. “They’re not professionals yet but you wouldn’t know it because they’re training to be.”

The play tells the story of a Jewish moneylender (Shylock) who seeks revenge against a Christian merchant who has defaulted on a loan. The loan was to help one of three suitors woo the wealthy and beautiful Portia of Belmont.

“It may be one of my favorites from Shakespeare,” said Hunt Brawley, executive director of the Peoples Bank Theatre and Hippodrome/Colony Historical Theatre Association. “It’s an interesting look at stereotypes and prejudice…we can look back at some of the prejudices that existed in Shakespeare’s time that we still have today.”

Felt said the play is both a romantic comedy and courtroom drama with Shakespeare tackling everything from marriage and family to religion.

“It’s right from his middle period and for me, he turned a corner in this text,” he said. “There are really complicated side plots that inform the story…and I think it’s his first truly great female character in Portia. She’s so complex and well-written.”

The setting for the production, near the gazebo at Muskingum Park, provides a unique experience, said the director.

“It’s quite magical,” he said. “It’s beautiful and we quickly learned to start at 8:30. That’s a late start but it’s when it cools off, lightning bugs come out and the sun is setting…people can bring their kids and have dinner, they can bike over to the park and watch some free Shakespeare.”

More than 100 chairs will be set up for the performances but those attending are also welcome to bring their own chairs or blankets, along with food.

Felt had one other suggestion as well.

“People may want to bring bug spray,” he said. “We are right on the river.”

If you go

¯ What: Shakespeare by the River: “The Merchant of Venice.”

¯ When: 8:30 p.m. Today, Saturday, Sunday and on July 7, 8 and 9.

¯ Where: Muskingum Park.

¯ Cost: Free.