Theater review by Elysa Gardner
New York stages have hosted many estimable Shylocks, but I doubt that any of them has evoked slavery with greater resonance than John Douglas Thompson does in the penetrating new production of The Merchant of Venice copresented by Theatre for a New Audience and Shakespeare Theatre Company. One of our most robust classical actors, Thompson is perhaps the first Black performer to portray Shakespeare’s controversial Jewish antagonist in a professional New York staging. In the climactic courtroom scene, when Shylock asks those who would judge him to consider the human beings they have bought and treated “like your asses and your dogs and mules,” the lines carry a particular sting.
As a Jew, Shylock knows from being seen as subhuman; by the time the moneylender makes this appeal, another character has already called him a dog, and his good Christian neighbors have made it clear that he is less welcome than one. In her fifth collaboration with Thompson, director Arin Arbus gives this Merchant a contemporary vibe; costume designer Emily Rebholz has Thompson enter in a natty three-piece suit accessorized with a yarmulke and tzitzit, and Isabel Arraiza’s Portia—at first disconcertingly slick, though love and other challenges deepen her—is introduced in workout gear, venting frustrations about her suitors as her servant plays boxing coach, then changing into a sleeveless gown to greet the poor schnooks who want to marry her. Other characters mix modern business attire and casual wear while wielding smartphones. But bigotry, of course, is timeless.
Arbus has assembled an ethnically diverse cast to explore the still-debated presence and purpose of the play’s anti-Semitic and racist tropes. Some of this is done through humor; Merchant is ostensibly a comedy, after all, and the director offsets deliciously goofy moments with some biting reality checks. After Arraiza’s thoroughly modern Portia makes a snarky reference to the dark complexion of the Prince of Morocco—an elegant, droll Maurice Jones, also fine as Shylock’s colleague Tubal and the Duke of Venice—she is stared down by her Black waiting woman, Nerissa, played by the wonderfully dry Shirine Babb. After the failure of Shylock’s scheme to exact a pound of flesh from the titular Antonio (a melancholy Alfredo Narciso), Haynes Thigpen’s broadly built Gratiano—such fun in his initial debauchery, stumbling around in an oversized coat and sunglasses—becomes threatening in his loutishness, his voice thick with contempt as he revels in Shylock’s comeuppance.
The extent to which Shakespeare saw justice in this twist remains up for discussion, but Thompson makes Shylock at once formidable and vulnerable; there is fire in his performance but also a haunted quality—with notes of defeat, of regret, perhaps even of grace—that seems to presage the final blow. Arbus emphasizes shades of uncertainty in Merchant’s ultimate couplings, including that between Portia and the charming Bassanio of Sanjit De Silva, who mines a sensual warmth from Arraiza in their scenes together. Keep an eye, especially, on the lovely Danaya Esperanza as Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, who is cunning in her desire for escape but ends up with a better understanding of her father—having learned, as young people often do, that all that glisters doesn’t buy an ever-happy ending.
The Merchant of Venice. Theatre for a New Audience (Off Broadway). By William Shakespeare. Directed by Arin Arbus. With John Douglas Thompson, Isabel Arraiza, Sanjit De Silva, Afredo Narciso. Running time: 2hrs 50mins. One intermission.