Sages Sold on Merchant

On May 4, the Canyon Sages attended a special performance of The Merchant of Venice at the Theatricum Botanicum. The play was the highlight of an all-day program introduced to Sages a few years ago, where Topanga seniors join school children from all over Southern California in a School Days Field Trip. School Days has been a valuable part of the Theatricum’s Educational outreach for the last 35 years.

This year’s show was not only up to the usual standards of Theatricum excellence but, as one of the Bard’s most controversial plays, it was also an opportunity to engage the cast, the Sages and the kids in a great Q&A following the play.

The Sages arrived at 9:30 a.m., with the Theatricum grounds at the height of lush beauty. The staff, attentive and knowledgeable, divided into groups for kids and seniors. The Sages group, organized by Sages outings wrangler Gail Thomas, eventually numbered 17. Theatricum liaison, Caitlin Stegemoller, then took the Sages to the main stage, already overflowing with middle and high schoolers.

This was the history portion of the program, but not your mama’s history class. Onstage, as we entered, was a perpetual motion machine made up of kids who moved and made noises in concert—one of many theater games offered to stimulate the students.

As the kids quieted, a special guest entered—Will Shakespeare, himself, played by Paul Terbiak. He claimed not to know what time or place he had stepped into and peppered the eager kids with questions. In the course of 10 minutes or so, the kids not only explained the present to him, but Will gave a good account of the Renaissance and his role in the theater there.

Next, Queen Elizabeth herself, imperiously played by Taylor Jackson Ross, strolled onstage in full Elizabethan dress to regale the students and again offer a give-and-take history lesson.

Even though some of the Sages had seen this act before, it’s improvisational, so always seems new and fresh. After the history show, the Sages moved to the small stage where Caitlin and Terbiak as Will joined us in a discussion of The Merchant of Venice. Some Sages read excerpts from the play, among them Catherine McClenahan reading Portia’s “The quality of mercy is not strained” speech. A potluck lunch was varied and delicious, topped off with cupcakes and song saluting birthday girl, Jackie Safonov. We then took our seats under the floating shade scrims and, with a cool breeze wafting by, settled in for the performance.

Ellen Geer directs The Merchant of Venice. It is a controversial play in this age for its harsh depiction of Jews in the character of Shylock, a money-lender, who demands a literal pound of flesh from his nemesis, Antonio, the merchant. But Shakespeare was more enlightened than many of his contemporaries. It was a time of virulently anti-Semitic screeds like Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. Shakespeare was unusual because he gave Shylock humanity, especially in the monologue movingly spoken by Alan Blumenfeld’s Shylock:

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

Still, Shylock is shown as unconscionably vengeful. But Ellen Geer also pulls no punches as she directs Willow Geer Alsop as Portia, in one of her most compelling performances, to be a vengeful angel, railing against the “Jew” as she assumes the role of his prosecutor at play’s end. Portia, as most of the characters in “Merchant,” does not come across as entirely sympathetic.

After the play, a teacher began the Q&A with this question: “Is this play anti-Semitic?” A valuable discussion among cast and kids spoke to the nuances in the play and helped students discover that discrimination against people because of who they are is as old as time— as old as Shakespeare. The play opens to the public on June 3 and runs through October 1.

Seniors should look for our next Theatricum outing at the Autry Museum on June 9 (See Events, p. 31, for details). We do a School Days outing each spring and usually offer a Theatricum potluck dinner and play in summer.

The Canyon Sages offers a full array of low-cost classes, free clubs, outings and services for seniors. To join and participate in our activities, contact Michele at; 455-1319; or join online:


By Michele Johnson


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