“The Merchant of Venice”–Ethan McSweeny


Even at 40, Ethan McSweeny looks too young to have done everything he’s done, to be, well, Ethan McSweeny.
He’s casually dressed, has a thin beard which still can’t prevent him from looking boyish, looks nonchalantly handsome, and is finishing up some salad after winding down a rehearsal for his production of “The Merchant of Venice” at the Washington Shakespeare Company in the Harman Center, which will open officially three days later.
He’s just said good bye to his parents, Dorothy McSweeny – the emeritus chair of the Washington D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities – and Bill McSweeny – a retired oil man, Kennedy Center trustee and journalist – along with his 7-year-old nephew, who sat in on the rehearsal. Both are prominent figures in the Washington cultural scene.
McSweeny is no longer quite a boy wonder, or wunderkind, as he was referred to back in his 20’s when he not only took a new play called “Never the Sinner” at Signature Theater to a successful Off Broadway run, but directed an all-star cast of theater pros in “The Best Man” on Broadway, making him the first director under 30 to direct a play on Broadway.
“I’m sure that rankled some people,” McSweeny admits. He doesn’t lack for confidence, and his background, which he has described as privileged, did not hurt, but there’s also no question that he’s earned his considerable accomplishments by way of a major talent, a restless imagination, a tireless gift and love for the work.
This year, he’s been especially busy with back-to-back directions of “A Time to Kill,” a world premiere stage play which just ended its run at Arena Stage, and “The Merchant of Venice.”
“You didn’t have to travel much,” he quips. “There was actually an overlap where we were doing final rehearsals for “Kill” and first preparation for “Merchant.”
He’s right at home here, of course, because although he lives in Brooklyn now, he’s a D.C. hometown boy.
“We lived across the street from the Kennedy Center,” McSweeny says. “When I was little, they [my parents] took me to see the opera ‘Boris Gudonov.’ I didn’t understand what was going on, but I was impressed, enchanted, and I think in a way that was it for me.”
He went to school at St. Albans or as he says, “survived it,” but found his true vocation early, becoming the first alumnus of Columbia’s undergraduate theatre department. He came home in 1993 to train under the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Michael Kahn, becoming his unofficial right-hand-man. He was all of 22. “Michael was a mentor, and I could not think of someone who affected me more,” McSweeny says.
Everywhere he goes – the celebrated Guthrie Theater, Broadway, the Chautauqua Theatre in New York State where he served as co-director (with Vivienne Benesch) – his style, his interests and his ideas are eclectic. You never quite know what you’re likely to get. He can go from “Romeo and Juliet” to Shaw to new, boundary-breaking plays.
While he’s built a huge reputation and accumulated over 60 directing credits, he’s obviously happy to be here where it all began and continues unabated. He did a clean, abundantly joyous and passionate production of “Ion” at the Shakespeare Theatre, a raw version of “The Persians” which echoed like a bell in the midst of the Iraq war, and production of Shaw’s “Major Barbara” that was a hallmark of clarity and singular acting achievements.
And now, “The Merchant of Venice,” a play that draws directors (and actors) like trembling moths to a flame. Many get burned and few do it perfectly. Because there’s no standard, the play is not only confounding, but changes for each audience and generation.
“It’s about money,” I suggest. “Of course it’s about money,” he says. “It’s ALL about money. It’s about what’s valuable to people, everything has a value tag here.”
So naturally, McSweeny set the play in 20th century America – specifically the Lower East Side of New York during the 1920s – teeming with immigrants who are trying to get a slice of the American dream. “To me the period and the setting resonate, the crash lies right ahead in time, but nobody sees it coming,” McSweeny says.
“It’s funny, it’s the first Shakespeare play I’ve done here, after all this time,” he says. And the most difficult.
McSweeney’s wide intellectual range is reflected in his family—his sister Terrell McSweeny is Vice President Joe Biden’s domestic policy adviser, for instance—where politics, culture, business and even sports are never mutually exclusive or trivial matters.
There might even be a critic lurking in the family – his 7-year-old nephew was asked how he liked what he saw in the theater. He gave it some thought.
“It’s not ‘Frog and Toad,’” he finally said.
It’s not. But think what Ethan McSweeny might do with “Frog and Toad.”

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