A fresh take on The Merchant of Venice’s Portia: Debora Threedy’s Balthazar set for world premiere in Plan-B Theatre production

Historically, the law firm has symbolized the anchor of a male hierarchy in the workplace and in broader society where males have almost exclusively governed. And, women often had to (and, likely still) fit into that model, to succeed and advance in the profession. Of course, there were breakthroughs in the 1970s and 1980s as a movement sparked by feminist consciousness became a formidable sociopolitical force.

In a 2009 Cornell University Law School publication, Cynthia Grant Bowman discussed the ironies of the historical, economic and social dynamics relating to this. “Think of all the chances the powerful law firms missed to co-opt women who, rejected from their doors, brought down so many of the barriers women had confronted,” she wrote. “What if Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had been embraced by a law firm and found happiness litigating complex corporate cases instead of taking pro bono cases on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union and masterminding the litigation campaign on behalf of its Women’s Rights Project? What if Representative Patricia Schroeder had been hired by one of the Denver law firms to which she applied in 1964 and never discovered her interest in government work and politics? And what if … early women lawyers had not persisted in seeking acceptance on their own terms?”

Show art by Aaron Asano Swenson.

Playwright Debora Threedy, who also is an emerita professor of law at The University of Utah, remembers her law student days in the 1970s when women lawyers embraced the label of Portia, the heroine in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The cultural roots of that reference had set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when women had blazed their first paths as lawyers. “The focus was on the fact that Portia had to disguise herself as a man,” Threedy said, “and for women who were graduating from law school and entering into their first job practicing law, they encountered colleagues who didn’t know what to do with us, quite frankly.”

Threedy, who has enjoyed quite a recent burst of original plays being produced by local independent theater companies, is set to have latest work, Balthazar, produced for a world premiere run by Plan-B Theatre, which is directed by Cheryl Ann Cluff. Performances begin Feb. 15 and run through March 3 in the Studio Theatre of the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts.

It’s Threedy’s first play set as a two-hander, with Portia (Lily Hye Soon Dixon) who also plays her alt-male persona, Balthazar, and Bellario, Portia’s cousin who is a widely respected lawyer (Jason Bowcutt). The setting is still the late Renaissance age in Italy.

Debora Threedy. Photo Credit: Kyle Lewis.

Threedy exercises her creative license in formulating her two characters. Bellario is mentioned in the Shakespeare original but is never on stage. In her play, Bellario also is trying to keep his secret and personal affairs as discreet as possible: he is gay and has a lover. 

As for Balthazar, he was Portia’s staunchly loyal servant and messenger in Shakespeare’s play. Balthazar’s starring moment as a minor character in The Merchant of Venice comes during the trial scene in the fourth act. He brings to court a letter of introduction from Bellario (and, of course, Portia is in disguise), indicating that the young lawyer will be defending Antonio during the trial. In the original, Balthazar’s role as messenger set the stage for the momentum leading to the climax in The Merchant of Venice.

Threedy’s play is a well-crafted piece of fan fiction. It is a creative practice she encourages others to tackle their favorite warhorses of the literary and cultural canon, when they want to reconfigure  characters and storylines with contemporary sensibilities and enlightened consciousness, while still keeping the broader integrity of the source material.

Lily Hye Soon Dixon. Photo Credit: Kallie Filanda.

In Balthazar, Bellario worries that if Portia’s disguise is revealed, she will be accused of witchcraft. Portia responds that, indeed, it is a “kind of witchcraft.” She adds, “When I’m a woman, every man I meet looks at me as if my only reason for being is to give him pleasure. But when I look like a man – men look me in the eye, and then nod, or scowl, or doff their cap. It doesn’t even matter. They acknowledge me! It’s intoxicating. Looking like this, either I am under a spell, or I have cast a spell on everyone else.”

Threedy recalls there were judges who asked women lawyers to leave their courtrooms, if they appeared, wearing pantsuits. They told them to return when they were “dressed appropriately.” But, she adds that in the last 20 to 30 years, many have surmised that perhaps Portia is not as great a role model, citing the potential ethical problems lawyers would risk by misrepresenting their identities in court.

Jason Bowcutt. Photo Credit: Kallie Filanda.

Every Shakespeare play has some instructive value in the discipline of law. Threedy says that, for obvious selfish reasons, she always has been a “big proponent” of bringing literature and theater to the law school classroom for students and continuing education legal seminars for judges and lawyers. For judges, she sees it as a channel for building empathy and encouraging them to see life’s situations through someone else’s eyes. For lawyers and law students, it is focusing on the role of lawyers in society and the reason for law. It is giving them, according to Threedy, the canvas for how they envision structuring their life in law upon the goals that they deem important in achieving them. 

As for the Portia ideal of the lawyer as a maverick or as an agent for change, Threedy cites as inspiration a 1984 essay by Audre Lorde, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. Threedy finds the resonance in Lorde’s words for how those lawyers aspiring to be an agent of change must grapple with the complex dynamics of that challenge. “For women, the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power I rediscovered,” Lorde wrote. “It is this real connection which is so feared by a patriarchal world. Only within a patriarchal structure is maternity the only social power open to women. Interdependency between women is the way to a freedom which allows the I to be, not in order to be used, but in order to be creative. This is a difference between the passive being and the active being.”

Threedy said the most challenging aspects of writing Balthazar were the technical ones in crafting a two-hander, a first attempt, as noted earlier. She prefers having lots of characters, as in Mountain Meadows, an outstanding play that premiered last year on the Pygmalion Theatre Company stage. But, knowing the practicalities of what small independent theater companies would be most interested in producing feasibly, she decided to pare down the size of the cast. 

Lily Hye Soon Dixon and Jason Bowcutt. Balthazar, By Debora Threedy, directed by Cheryl Ann Cluff, Plan-B Theatre. Photo Credit: Kallie Filanda.

Portia was a more difficult character than Bellario to reimagine, she said. The easier opportunity with Bellario was that he came with a clean slate, given that he never appears on stage in The Merchant of Venice. While she did not set out to write Bellario as a gay man, Threedy also is a playwright who responds to her interior creative instincts when they start telling the writer to take a character in a specific direction. 

She said that she believes lawyers in the audience hopefully will recognize themselves, as they observe Portia’s progression from a student of the law to a practicing trial attorney, acknowledging how truth in the experience changes them in a way that cannot be reversed. As for law students, Threedy believes that it might remind them of the insightful yet also unsettling process of realizing how their thinking about the world is being changed. For broader interests in the audience, she hopes that patrons will see gender fluidity outside of the hyper politicized frame of imaginary threats which have been reduced to absurd confrontations about, for example, who can use what restrooms. Likewise, audiences will see how the vulnerabilities still exist — often as prominently as they did during Portia’s time — where women in many professions and in high-ranking posts are subjected to effects and consequences of overt and unconscious bias.

The play was developed as part of Plan-B’s Lab and Script-In-Hand Series and Words Cubed at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, Please click the Plan-B Theatre website for further details and tickets 

Leave a Reply