Theater & Dance
Brian Herndon

Current show: "The Merchant of Venice"
By: William Shakespeare
Produced by: City Lights Theater Company
Directed by: Kit Wilder
Featuring: Jeffrey Bracco as Antonio, Brian Herndon as Shylock, Maria Giere Marquis as Portia, George Psarras as Bassanio, Caitlin Papp as Nerissa, Max Tachis as Gratiano, Roneet Aliza Rahamim as Jessica, Jeremy Ryan as Lorenzo, Nick Mandracchia as Solanio, April Green as Saleria, Tasi Alabastro as Launcelot Gobbo, Tom Gough as The Prince of Arragon / Duke of Venice, and Bezachin Jifar as The Prince of Morocco / Tubal
When: March 22 through April 22, 2018
Where: City Lights Theater Company, 529 South Second Street, San Jose
Tickets: $19-$44 (discounts available). Visit or call 408-295-4200.

Coming up: "Two Minds"
By: Lynne Kaufman
Directed by: Robert Kelley
Featuring: Brian Herndon and Jackson Davis
When: May 4 through June 9, 2018
Where: The Marsh, 1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Tickets: $20-$35 sliding scale, $55 and $100 reserved seating; visit or call 415-282-3055

Gough, Herndon
Taylor Sanders / City Lights Theater Company
Brian Herndon as the moneylender Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice," staged at City Lights Theater Company in San Jose, March 22 through April 22, 2018. In the background is Tom Gough as the Duke of Venice.
If you put him on a stage,
does he not act or direct?
Veteran of lots of roles, Brian Herndon
is presenting Shylock at City Lights Theater
March 24, 2018

Given the serious nature of most of what generally comes to mind about Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice," it's fun to note that in the First Folio, it was listed as a comedy.

When most of us think about "Merchant," we might first remember Shylock's famous speech from Act III:

"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 diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?"

Or, perhaps we think of Portia's beautiful speech in Act IV:

"The quality of mercy is not strained.

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes."

The story is about a loan of money between two men, one an antisemite, Antonio, the other a Jew, Shylock. Antonio guarantees a loan from Shylock to another man, agreeing that Shylock may have a pound of his flesh if he defaults on the loan. When disaster strikes and he defaults, the pound of flesh is demanded, and the case goes to court.

Pretty grim stuff, but it is lightened to a degree on by some of Shakespeare's oft-seen comedy tricks, such as women posing as men and the confusion that arises from that.

Another reason why it might have been thought a comedy back in 1623 is that Jews had been expelled from England in 1290, and were not allowed to (openly) return until 1656. Antisemitism raged in Europe, and so it was easy in the play's first centuries to play Shylock as an evil clown, despite the obvious plea for humanity in his words.

It was not until Edmund Kean's performance of a sympathetic Shylock in 1814 that a bigger view was taken of the famous money-lender, and a more expansive understanding arose of the play.

The history of Shylock weighs on Brian Herndon, who is playing the character in City Lights' production of the play in San Jose, through April 22, 2018.

"It's not an added pressure exactly," said Herndon in a recent phone interview. "It's kind of an additional responsibility when you have to take on a role like Shylock, bumping up against other people's preconceptions of who Shylock is, and your own preconceived notions. You have to navigate all of that, and what's really on the page.

"And it's what I think about late at night, the fact that there's a heritage to the role, a lineage. When you play Shylock, you're joining that. There's a responsibility. "I played Caliban (in "The Tempest") a couple of summers ago, and it didn't feel the same way. People don't know Caliban as well. People don't come to see ‘The Tempest' … to see him. There are no sea monsters coming to see ‘The Tempest,' but lots of Jewish people will come to see ‘The Merchant of Venice.'"

Herndon doesn't happen to be Jewish, although he's played Jewish parts on stage many times, including in "Rags" at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in April 2017. "I think I look Jewish, maybe?" he said. "A lot of people think I am, just based on my appearance. I grow a good beard, maybe that's it. My grandfather was a Presbyterian minister."

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At City Lights, director Kit Wilder is setting "The Merchant of Venice" in modern times, not in the Venice of centuries ago.

"Kit's idea is we are in the future from here," Herndon said. "He's seeing the way we are in 2018 —more politics, more racism than ever ... he's extrapolating. All that racism is cropping up again."

In a press release, Wilder said: "This Venice is a world of people who are rich, exclusive, xenophobic and, generally speaking, ill-equipped and ill-prepared to fulfill their own potential as human beings."

"I think it works," said Herndon of Wilder's approach. "I don't think it's such a heavy handed concept. It feels very modern."

Today's racism and xenophobia is becoming normalized, said Herndon, "which is the horrifying thing. One of the things about ‘Merchant of Venice' is that nobody comes off well. The Jew has his own issues about getting revenge and justice, and the Christian, the idle rich, all have issues. They are racist, not happy in their lives.

"There are very close parallels to people today."

Herndon first performed at age 6 at Montclair Presbyterian Church in Oakland, and in other theaters until he went to college to study chemistry. "It was time to buckle down," he said. But by his sophomore year, he had started to audition at theaters again, and while he did get a bachelor's degree in chemistry, he went to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival to get his master's.

Brian Herndon
Jessie Cagliero photo
Actoer/director Brian Herndon

"It was an amazing theater, much like Ashland," Herndon said. "They had a festival year-around, did shows in repertory. It was a destination theater for the South. When we were there, we were doing 13 shows a year, and were paid to be there. We had 16 MFA actors to move sets, to understudy roles. They trained us, gave us our MFAs and equity cards." The program no longer exists, Herndon said. "But it was good while it lasted."

Herndon, 47, has made a nice career of theater in the San Francisco Bay Area, only leaving to do performances of Paul Gordon's lovely musical, "Emma."

"When I got married (to costume designer Jocelyn Leiser Herndon) and had a child (Gwen), I decided I would make my career here. ...

"I keep saying yes to whatever comes my way, and after a while, you say, there's a career."

He's been having some fun with his 11-year-old daughter, Gwen, by letting her know about some of "The Merchant of Venice," but not everything.

"My daughter doesn't know how it ends," he said. "She knows the basic story, but I'm not telling her about the ending. The trial scene, doing it and thinking about how grim it is … it's fun to revisit how grim that scene will be … it's a fun way to attack that trial scene — it could be old hat because we adults know where it's going, but a younger person wouldn't know. It's been fun. My daughter is going to see it. I want her to be able to react to it."

Herndon works mostly as an actor, but also sometimes as a director — he directed "The Foreigner" at Hillbarn Theatre in October 2017, and it was hilarious and wonderful. He also teaches, four mornings a week, at Odyssey Middle School in San Mateo.

Next up for him as an actor is "Two Minds," by Lynn Kaufman, at the Marsh Theatre in San Francisco, opening on May 4, 2018. It's a funny but truth-based story of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, Israeli psychologists who won a McArthur Genius Award and a Nobel Prize for their groundbreaking research on how we think.

Performing with Herndon will be Jackson Davis, who has had a wonderful and varied, career, including an absolutely fabulous turn in "An Iliad" at San Jose Stage Company in 2014.

The pair will be directed by Robert Kelley, founder and artistic director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

Email John Orr at

Brian Herndon
Gregg Le Blanc photo
Brian Herndon as Caliban in "The Tempest" at the Livermore Shakespeare Festival in 2016.
Herndon, Kaufman, Davis
David Allen / The Marsh
Actor Brian Herndon, playwright Lynne Kaufman, and actor Jackson Davis, from left,pose for a pre-production promotional photo for"Two Minds," which is to play at The Marsh San Francisco, May 4 through June 9, 2018.