The final day of the Folger Theatre’s Reading Room Festival proved as plucky and spirited as ever. At the center of this Shakespeare-filled Sunday was a staged reading of “Everything That Never Happened” by Sarah Mantell. Professing a bone to pick with “The Merchant of Venice,” Mantell set out to create a theatrical world in which Jewish voices are prevalent voices, and navigating the politics of gender becomes a thematic part of why this play is so important.
The piece is, in many ways, the “untold story” of “The Merchant of Venice.” Shylock (Derek Kolluri) evolves here into a character with depth, feeling, and the wherewithal to understand exactly how rage and a need for revenge can get the better of someone. He has a keen self-awareness, such that is nonexistent in “Merchant.” In Mantell’s iteration of the play, Shylock is not, as Shakespeare would have, a mere stereotype that’s been tragically used against the Jewish people. Mantell explains of their journey with this play, “my process felt like wrestling with Shakespeare in a dirty ditch and coming up with a piece of his shirt and being like, “I’m going to get him next time! I can feel it!”
“Everything That Never Happened” ostensibly begins on a star-crossed lovers kind of note, and ends with a deep dive into the complexities of human relationships—so many different types of relationships. Jessica (Miriam Schwartz) is in love (she thinks) with Lorenzo (Zack Powell), and Lorenzo is in love with her…we think. Is it really love driving Lorenzo here? Mantell makes the ambiguity surrounding the character’s true motivation an evocatively telling part of this narrative. There is also the complexity of the relationship between Jessica and her servant Gabbo (Cali Izzi). Making Gabbo a trans masculine character, Mantell plays with gender identity as well as with the dynamics of all of the relationships on stage—and relishes doing so, you can just tell.
Then of course, the core piece of this Shakespeare-undone puzzle is the relationship between Jessica and her father, Shylock. There is one moment toward the end of the play where they sing Kaddish together. It is both heartbreaking and life-affirming at the same time—absolutely gorgeous.
The play was produced at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and underwent a few transformative rewrites during the Folger’s Reading Room Festival. During the talkback following the reading, Mantell, director Johanna Gruenhut, dramaturg Michele Osherow, and moderator M. Lindsay Kaplan took a look at the legacy of this play and how that legacy has caused harm. Mantell’s goal: to replace the existing perception of this Shakespearean comedy with one that gives space and voice back to those who were excluded. On this, they deliver. All in all, a highly thought-provoking and definitely enjoyable day at The Reading Room Festival.
The Reading Room Festival ran from January 25-28, 2024 at Folger Theatre, 201 E Capitol St SE, Washington, DC 20003. For more information on the Folger Theatre Reading Room Festival, go online.