Review: Balthazar at Plan-B Theatre

On Friday, Feb. 16, 2024, Plan-B staged the world premiere of Balthazar, a new play by Debora Threedy that puts a modern twist on Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

The lights go up and Portia enters the law library of her staid cousin Bellario. The scene is set for a battle of the wills. She implores her cousin to teach her the law, so she can defend Antonio, her paramour, Bassanio’s “friend,” in debtor’s court. The debt, she believed was hers. Bassanio, an impoverished suitor, borrowed the money from Antonio so he could court and marry the noblewoman, Portia.

Bellario (played by Jason Bowcutt, with equal parts gravitas and humor), refuses. Women are barred from practicing law. And he is after all a successful man, a doctor of the law and a practitioner of 16th Century Venetian mores. He also is gay. But Portia (played by the effervescent Lilly Hue Soo Dixon) will not be deterred. Still, he refuses to aid in the charade and emphatically instructs Portia to forget about such deception lest she end up in a convent for wayward women.

Portia returns to his office dressed as Balthazar, a young man. Bellario doesn’t recognize Portia as Balthazar, and proceeds in the game of deception by teaching him the rigors of the law. The two engage in a lively discussion regarding the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law. Through the exchange between the two, Balthazar reinterprets and reimagines the law into a successful defense of Antonio as a debtor-criminal defendant.

Threedy developed the play in Plan-B’s Lab and Script-in-hand Series and the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s Words Cubed, a week-long, intense development process. Derek Livingston, director of New Plays at Utah Shakespeare Festival says, “As a Utah writer, Debora has been fortunate to have Plan-B as a home at which she has developed the play.”

“Plan-B’s focus on women, queer stories, and Utah writers is an important commitment to elevating underrepresented voices,” Livingston says. “That Balthazar manages to have those foci, was developed by two different theaters with very different missions, located at opposite ends of the state, points to how universal Threedy’s work is,” he said.

The combination of Plan-B Theatre, playwright Threedy, and William Shakespeare is a powerful concoction. Threedy doesn’t shy away from creating plays with progressive themes, and Plan-B Theatre, likewise, produces and stages powerful and exploratory productions. In Balthazar, the audience is given a Shakespearean romp with a contemporary twist. 

Throughout the play the set is constant, a glimpse into a successful lawyer’s environs. The set design (created by Scenic Designer, Janice Chan) evokes the rigidity of 16th-century tradition. The furniture is heavy, the art is “Titian” as Portia points out, and the image of conservatism reigns. Likewise, the costumes (designed by Aaron Asano Swenson) effectively convey convention.

Once Antonio is released from the debtor’s claims, and Bassanio fulfills the obligations of Portia’s father’s will, Portia and Bassanio marry. The three set up a household, with Portia seamlessly transitioning from Portia to Balthazar to the joy and amusement of Bassanio and Antonio.

“‘Different’ is different from ‘unnatural,’” claims Portia. “I am Her, I am Him.”

As the play ended, the sold-out theater erupted with resounding applause. The 70-minute play captured our imaginations at seeing justice, in every sense, was served.

  • What: Balthazar by Debora Threedy
  • Where: Plan-B Theater’s studio stage in the Rose Wagner Theatre, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City
  • When: Runs through March 3, 2024
  • Tickets, showtimes and information at planbtheatre.org
Linda Hunt
Linda Hunthttps://www.saltlakemagazine.com/
Linda Hunt, an artist and arts activist, is the former Executive Director of the Foothill Cultural District, a consortium of Salt Lake City’s arts and culture organizations, including the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, the Natural History Museum of Utah and Hogle Zoo, among others. Prior to returning to her roots in Utah, she was the Associate Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California where, according to her FBI file, she entered the pantheon of trouble-makers. Hunt is currently completing research for her forthcoming book, “Rappers Under the Gun: The U. S. Government’s War on Hip Hop.”

Similar Articles

Most Popular