Review: A ‘Merchant of Venice’ That Doubles Down on Pain

More than 30 years ago, John Douglas Thompson, then a successful salesman at a Fortune 500 company, saw a play in New Haven, Conn. When it was over, he offered up a prayer: “Please, God, make me an actor. Teach me how to do that, and make this possible for me.”

Thompson told me this five years ago, on the floor of a Broadway lobby after finishing a performance of August Wilson’s “Jitney.” And I remembered it last week, watching him as Shylock in Arin Arbus’s caustic, provocative production of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” at Theater for a New Audience.

That prayer has been answered.

Since 2009, when he played Othello — also for Arbus, also at Theater for a New Audience — audiences have recognized Thompson as an outstanding classical actor, perhaps the greatest Shakespeare interpreter in contemporary America theater. There are actors of greater plasticity, better grace, lusher voice. But Thompson, a virtuoso of psychological insight and emotional specificity, makes each centuries-old line sound like it has occurred to him in the moment. In his distinctive sandpaper rasp, he takes what’s timeless and transmutes it to the present. To watch him work is to feel fluttery, lightheaded. Blessed, maybe.

“The Merchant of Venice” is a fairy tale with a corrosive center, a chocolate filled with battery acid. Its plot joins two folk tales, three love stories and a nerve-splintering trial scene that puts “Perry Mason” to shame. It concerns a melancholy Christian merchant, Antonio (Alfredo Narciso), who borrows 3,000 ducats from a Jewish usurer, Shylock (Thompson), to fund his friend Bassanio (Sanjit De Silva) — a close friendship that Arbus renders as explicitly romantic. Shylock forgoes interest in favor of an unusual condition: If Antonio forfeits, Shylock will extract a pound of flesh from his body.

From left, Thompson, Maurice Jones, Yonatan Gebeyehu, Nate Miller, Alfredo Narciso and Varín Ayala in the production, which emphasizes the awfulness of everyone in Venice, not Shylock alone.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Despite his relationship with Antonio, Bassanio is wooing Portia (a flexible and elegant Isabel Arraiza). To confound her suitors, her father has set them a challenge. They have to choose among three caskets: one gold, one silver, one lead. If a suitor chooses correctly, he will find Portia’s portrait. Otherwise, he has to leave, with the promise that he will never marry. The plots combine in that harrowing courtroom scene, where Portia gives her “quality of mercy” speech.

Over the past century, scholars have debated whether “Merchant” should be staged at all, particularly after the play was deployed in Germany in the 1940s as Nazi propaganda. Every responsible production has to contend with its uneasy legacy.

Arbus’s solution is to emphasize the awfulness of everyone in Venice, not Shylock alone. Mercy? Look elsewhere.On Riccardo Hernandez’s set, a doge’s palace given a Brutalist remodel, and under Marcus Doshi’s grim lights, the characters demean and betray one another. Even the virtuous Portia displays casual racism and less-casual hypocrisy. No one else behaves any better. Emily Rebholz’s costumes — athleisure, Vans, a hoodie with “Brooklyn” printed on it — confirm this atmosphere of treachery as neither long ago nor far away.

Casting Thompson complicates the prejudices at work in the play, superimposing Blackness on Shylock’s Jewishness. Black Jews of course exist, but despite the interpolation of some lines from a Yom Kippur prayer at the play’s end, it is this Shylock’s Blackness and not his Jewishness that Arbus’s production emphasizes. “By casting a Black man as Shylock in America in 2021, one becomes painfully aware of the connections between Shakespeare’s 16th-century Venice and our world now,” she said in a news release.

This pays certain dividends, giving some lines particular resonance, as when Shylock, in his speech to the Venetian court, says:

In laying bare Antonio’s prejudices during the first act, Thompson mockingly assumes the cringing tones of a racist caricature, a barbed and devastating choice that shows his anguished self-awareness. He knows how the others see him and how they want him to behave. He refuses. But in exacting revenge on those who perceive him as less than fully human, he loses his own humanity, which is his tragedy.

And yet, this doubling feels like displacement — diminishment, perhaps — especially as it sidesteps the thorny questions of the play’s own attitudes toward Jews. Threats against American Jews have risen precipitously in recent years, as has online harassment. The hostage situation at a Texas synagogue last month was a sobering reminder of hatred with a long history. None of this necessarily makes Arbus’s focus on Blackness wrong. (And who would deny Thompson any role he wanted?) But anti-Blackness and antisemitism aren’t identical. And both continue. Which is to say: Wasn’t this painful enough? Weren’t we aware already?

The Merchant of Venice
Through March 6 at Theater for a New Audience, Brooklyn; Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.

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