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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Fog/Mist
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The new kid on the block: Meet Fermat's Last Theater Company
Phan: "We really wanted to raise the bar for our first production."
Credit:Fermat's Last Theater Company

There's a new theater troupe in town, and they're out to shake things up. Named Fermat's Last Theater Company, the 12-person group has strong ties to the Young Shakespeare Players, where many of its actors gained experience. This early exposure to the Bard's works shows in the company's first production, a staging of The Merchant of Venice at Overture Center's Rotunda Stage (through Aug. 4).

Fermat's Last Theater recently conducted a successful Kickstarter campaign to stage The Merchant of Venice. I asked Ely Phan, the Madison native and recent UW grad who's directing the play, to share what Fermat's is all about.

Isthmus: How did Fermat's go from being an idea to a real, live theater troupe?
Phan: David Simmons was the originator of the project. He picked our first play and pulled the cast and production staff together. He had the idea [for Fermat's] since at least December of last year, but it wasn't until February of this year that it started to take shape.

So far, it's been a real family affair. A few of us have just come out of theater school, so we want to apply what we’ve learned. We really wanted to raise the bar for our first production.

Why did you choose The Merchant of Venice for your first production?
People have asked me why we didn't choose something lighter or easier to tackle, like The Winter's Tale or Romeo and Juliet, but I think Merchant is much more interesting and relevant to the times we live in. It's not presented that often because it's controversial, but it's very relevant to current events because it encourages you ask some hard questions about racism and other kinds of prejudice.

A lot of people might not immediately think that Merchant is that relevant, or they might find it offensive, but I think the kind of hate that exists in this play still exists in the world. Maybe not in this pocket of the world, but in other parts. We're thinking about it globally.

How would you describe the company's approach to direction, costuming and set design for this production?
The big keyword for us has been simplicity. We've opted for a minimalist production for budget reasons, mainly. As far as the process of staging it, it's very collaborative. I'm what most people would call the director, but we come up with the blocking together and scene work as a group. It takes longer, but I think it's worth it because everyone has a sense of ownership.

What’s the story behind the company's name?
Fermat was a mathematician, and he is known for this theorem called "Fermat's last theorem." It doesn't have to do with the company in a philosophical sense, but it's been said of the theorem that there was never enough room in the margins. You could definitely say that about us, too.

What is Fermat's role in the local theater community, or what does it bring to the scene that other companies don't focus on quite as much?
I think Madison's theater communities could communicate amongst each other more. People coming through Madison as students often want to be part of the larger scene in the city, but they can struggle to find the best fit and navigate the scene because it's so separate from the UW.

Also, even thought there's lots of theater being produced, it's very static in terms of audience. A lot of the local companies have a very specific audience. I'd like to see the professional and more established companies produce material that's attractive to a wider group of people. I'd like to see us get away from tradition a little more, even if we're doing something classic, like Shakespeare. People like to be challenged. That's one thing [Fermat's] is trying to do.

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