Claire Mahave as Nerissa
As Nerissa, I am on stage for nine of twenty scenes, but I seldom speak. Nerissa is Portia’s maid, and ever by her side. It is surprisingly difficult and tiring to play a character that is largely silent and mostly reacts. It is essential to remain engaged and attentive throughout each scene, whether one speaks or not. It is also critical to understand your relative importance in the scene; sometimes background actors have reactions that are so big that it distracts from the other actors and what they are saying. There are moments at which it is appropriate to be a little distracting, but most of the time (and particularly in Shakespeare, whose language is so beautiful and so important), background characters must stay in the background.
There’s also a tremendous freedom to be had in playing a character like Nerissa, though, to be seen in the wide variety of interpretive choices that the text allows. We know several things about Nerissa that are embedded in the lines. We know that Portia is close to her and relies on her. With few exceptions, Nerissa speaks only to Portia and only when the two are alone. Finally, we know that Nerissa defers to her mistress, with no complaints and no questioning of motives.
As an actor, though, it is not enough to know these things. The primary question an actor must answer is why? Why does a character say (or not say) or do (or neglect to do) a particular thing? Why is one road taken instead of another? Does Nerissa love Portia? Is she motivated instead by duty to Portia’s late father? Does she see Portia’s uglier qualities, or is she as completely captivated by Portia’s charms as is everyone else in their world? Is she motherly, a friend, a reluctant ally? With such a vast imbalance of power, can they truly be friends, or is that merely Portia’s illusion, fostered and humored by Nerissa?
I have played with various interpretations and have decided to make Nerissa quite a bit more sympathetic than many of the characters. She is naïve and sweet, eager to make Portia happy and glad to stay in the background. This makes the last scene particularly fun to play as the balance between pleasing Portia and satisfying her own nature cause conflicting impulses.
Ah, Pigeon Creek: How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I now conclude my show with Pigeon Creek,
Saddened by the fact that I must leave.
Exposure to this world of Shakespeare Chic
(Superior to aught I could believe)
Has given me a thirst for more Creek shows
And let me to a great epiphany:
That I shan’t rest for feeling so morose
And craving for their august company.
I love the friendliness and sense of pride,
Support and wisdom given out to all,
Camaraderie and kindness bona fide,
No divas to make anyone feel small.
There is but only one thing left to say:
Post haste, please cast me in another play!
(Editor’s Note: Regardless of Ms. Mahave’s foray into blank verse, we’ve already cast her in our summer show this year, Henry IV part i.)