Stephen Driscoll returns to the UMass stage in ‘The Merchant of Venice’

By Ruthann Barry

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(Courtesy of UMass Theater Department)

(Courtesy of UMass Theater Department)

The UMass Department of Theater’s production of William Shakespeare’s, “The Merchant of Venice,” gives audiences a vibrant and hilarious portrayal of the famous comedy, and the unparalleled talent of an exceptional cast made it an impossible production to miss.

The play centers on the Venetian merchant Antonio, played by Cory Missildine, who must finance his friend’s romantic endeavors by borrowing money from Shylock, a Jew forced to live in the ghetto and who faces constant discrimination, as reprised by UMass alumnus Stephen Driscoll ’73. As Antonio falls short on his loan, Shylock demands in a bond an equal pound of flesh. The ensuing trials and trickery of the play’s characters promote the audience to question the nature of the justice of law and the pangs of prejudice.

Amongst the cast, comprised of students, is Driscoll, aUMass theater legend.. Driscoll performed in countless plays during his years at UMass, many of which were in the Bartlett and Bowker auditoriums as the Fine Arts Center under construction.

After battling cancer for the past six years, Driscoll chose to spend this past summer at the British American Drama Academy in Oxford in search of fulfillment. It was his experience this summer and the looming uncertainty of cancer that prompted him to return to the UMass stage.

Driscoll looks back on his UMass years quite fondly.

“From the day I left here I think I was nostalgic about it. I always thought to myself, ‘I would love to come back and just spend some time, to be on campus, and feel what it was like all those many years ago,” he said. “I remember it as one of the most productive and creative periods of my life.”

Driscoll’s experience with the character of Shylock began at quite a young age, during his years in junior high school. He impressively rewrote Shakespeare and played the part Shylock nearly fifty years ago at the age of fourteen.

“There was something about the role of Shylock that grabbed me by the throat, and by my heart. I just said, ‘Okay I know who this guy is, I can feel him, and I want to play him.’” Driscoll said, “So, over the Christmas holiday, I went home and condensed the play, and was absolutely determined to do it.”

Driscoll’s portrayal of Shylock plays upon the character’s villainy, while simultaneously evoking sympathy from the audience. His moving performance is welcomed back eagerly to UMass by the production’s cast and crew.

“We’ve become a really tight knit group. There are some really talented young actors in this group,” Driscoll said, “and some haven’t done Shakespeare before, which is really remarkable that they were able to do this in three weeks.”

The cast emphasizes the provocative comedy of Shakespeare that is much better represented in live performance than simply reading the text. The humor carries itself well throughout while mingling in aspects of tragedy and drama that underline the themes of the play.

Having seen many productions of “The Merchant of Venice,” Driscoll finds something special and different in each, individual performance, especially in his collaboration with Simotes.

“I was working with a director who had never done (this play) before. I came in with all these preconceptions and bubbling ideas,” Driscoll said, “To see him wrestling with it and to pick out something I never considered was a revelation and helped me a lot.”

“In fact I’m playing some scenes that I don’t think if somebody had told me a year ago that I’d be interpreting that particular scene that way I would say ‘no I wouldn’t do it that way.”

With arts funding in a continuous decline for the past thirty years, Driscoll stresses the importance of the function of art as something that promotes an understanding about culture and people.

“One of my fraternity brothers, I will never forget it, told me forty years ago that my performances here as a student enriched his life, I never forgot that. What more as performers could we possibly ask for than to enrich someone’s life?” Driscoll said.

“The Merchant of Venice” is surely one of Driscoll’s most fulfilling and enriching performances. The production encompassed the vast talents of many student actors and the unique interpretations of Simotes.

Ruthann Barry can be reached at [email protected]