What is great acting? We can see it here and now at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. John Douglas Thompson, anointed by the New York Times as “perhaps the greatest Shakespeare interpreter in contemporary America,” is giving a great performance as Shylock in STC’s The Merchant of Venice, and it is not to be missed.
The Merchant of Venice is a controversial play. Its world is suffused with racism, antisemitism, misogyny, classism. Interpretations have varied wildly since the 18th century, and there is an ongoing debate as to whether it should be produced at all. STC has taken up the challenge and given us a richly illuminating production for our time.
There is no doubt that historically the play has been used for antisemitic purposes. Adam Immerwahr, artistic director of Theater J, noted in STC’s Shakespeare Hour Live that in Shakespeare’s day audiences were probably expected to end the play hating Shylock. But times change. Today, Immerwahr notes, we are often expected to end the play feeling horrible for Shylock.
Thompson is a Black actor and his daughter Jessica is played by the gifted Danaya Esperanza, a Black actress who played Juliet in STC’s Free for All Romeo and Juliet directed by Alan Paul. Portia (Isabel Arraiza) is from Vega Baja, Puerto Rico. The cast is significantly diverse, bringing the subject of racism to the fore as well.
Director Arin Arbus has taken the bold approach of allowing the uglier aspects of the play to stay front and center. Shylock is spat upon several times. After Portia’s suitor the Prince of Morocco, who is Black, exits in defeat, she makes the racist remark (which is frequently cut) “Let all of his complexion choose me so.” At one point, Antonio refuses to take Shylock’s hand or look him in the eye. The production can be difficult to watch at some moments, and even painful for a female or a member of a minority group.
But there is a reason this Merchant played to sold-out audiences in Brooklyn. It is brilliant and breathtakingly alive. The glorious diversity of the cast, the talent of the actors, and the beauty of the physical production combine to make it a memorable experience. Director Arbus presents the play’s hideous behaviors to satirize and condemn the anti-Christian behavior of the supposed Christian characters. This is critically relevant to all our lives today.
Bassanio (Sanjit De Silva), a local man-about-Venice, needs money to woo the wealthy Portia. His dear friend Antonio (Alfredo Narciso), whose wealth is tied up in ships at sea, agrees to borrow the money Bassanio needs from Shylock. Shylock in turn borrows it from his co-religionist Tubal (Maurice Jones), insisting on a contract specifying that if Antonio defaults, Shylock is entitled to a pound of Antonio’s flesh.
This seems unforgivable on Shylock’s part. It is somewhat understandable in that Antonio has kicked Shylock, spit on him, and called him a dog. But the “pound of flesh” demand is reminiscent of profoundly unfair and horrifying accusations that have been leveled against the Jewish community for centuries.
Thompson carries the play on his shoulders. His Shylock is a man of tremendous inner strength whose faith (along with his money) has become the shield that protects him (or so he hopes) from the abuse he is subjected to. Shylock is treated so viciously that one would feel sympathy for him even if he were not played by a great actor. He has intellect and a full range of powerful emotions: his love for his daughter Jessica (Danaya Esperanza); the heartbreak of losing his wife, Leah; and an overwhelming need for justice, in a world that is never going to provide it to him.
When Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, elopes with the Christian Lorenzo, taking her father’s money and jewels, Shylock’s bitterness becomes overwhelming. Although her marriage proves to be disastrous, Esperanza’s Jessica meets her fate with sensitivity and courage. David Lee Huynh as Lorenzo has the difficult task of conveying misogynistic male behavior and handles it extremely well.
Antonio (Alfredo Narciso), the merchant of the title, has a deep connection with de Silva’s Bassanio from the beginning. Their interchanges have a subtle power — it seems they know each other well but cannot fully express what they are feeling. Narciso conveys Antonio’s selflessness with exceptional insight and care. De Silva’s attractive and unpretentious Bassanio is especially good at humor, and at giving an honest reaction to what might seem an absurd situation.
The heiress Portia (Isabel Arraiza) rules an affluent household in Belmont with the assistance of her maid, Nerissa (Shirine Babb), and her servant, Balthazar (Jeff Biehl). Portia is a young girl, slightly unsure of herself. Her father has left her a frustrating legacy: To be her future husband a man must choose from among three boxes, one gold, one silver, one lead, to find the one that contains Portia’s picture. Any man who fails not only loses Portia but must never marry another woman.
Portia has many suitors, none of whom particularly interest her. In the famous Casket Scene, we see two of them, the Prince of Morocco (Maurice Jones) and the Prince of Arragon (Varin Ayala). Jones as Morocco is thoughtful and highly amusing, though ultimately unsuccessful. Ayala as Arragon brings a sure sense of comedy and some very impressive Spanish to a role that though brief becomes distinctly appealing.
Arraiza gives a fine performance, giving all aspects of her role, even the unpleasant ones, total commitment and passionate intensity. This Portia is full of surprises, and she executes them all with aplomb.
The relationship between Portia and Nerissa is especially well done. Nerissa is played by Shirine Babb, who played Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra in 2017 at the Folger Theatre. Nerissa, as played by Babb, is older and more sophisticated than the young heiress, and serious-minded to boot. One day I hope to see her as Portia!
Bassanio’s friend Gratiano is played by Hayes Thigpen with a keen grasp of the character’s bumptious nature and natural difficulty reining himself in. Salerio (Graham Winton) and Solanio (Yonatan Gebeyehu) each have a unique brand of humor and approach to Bassanio — this is a tribute to the talents of the actors because in some productions they are difficult to tell apart! Maurice Jones as Tubal has a powerful confrontation with Shylock. Nate Miller as Lancelet Gobbo, who literally runs from being Shylock’s servant to being Bassanio’s, is a comic delight whose inventive raillery keeps us watching. In the small role of Balthazar, Jeff Biehl has his own special moments of trenchant fun.
Scenic Designer Riccardo Hernandez has created a beautifully understated set, with two doors, a staircase across the stage, and a round window above. It works perfectly with Emily Rebholz’s modern costumes. We are given just enough detail to follow the story without being distracted by overly lavish visuals.
The performance ends with the lovely Kol Nidre sung in Hebrew by Jessica and Shylock. Some scholars believe that during the Inquisition in the 15th century, the prayer released Spanish Jews from the Christian vows they were forced to make during the year. When recited on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, it is meant to help the community celebrate the Day with an open heart. It relates in this instance to Jessica’s willing conversion to Christianity, which ends tragically, and Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity, which is exceedingly cruel and heartbreaking.
All vows, renunciations, bans, oaths, formulas of obligations, pledges, and promises that we vow and promise to ourselves and to God from this Yom Kippur to the next—may it approach us for good—we hereby retract. May they all be undone, repealed, canceled, voided, annulled, and regarded as neither valid or binding. Our vows shall not be considered vows; our renunciations shall not be considered renunciations; and our promises shall not be considered promises.
Adam Immerwahr’s comment, that today we are often expected to feel horrible for Shylock, holds true for many contemporary productions. And it suggests a major aspect of John Douglas Thompson’s achievement. His Shylock is neither a monster nor a noble victim. He is a complex, fully realized human being, admirable at times, and at others, utterly merciless.
This is, perhaps, the most valuable portrait of Shylock we could have.
In a sense, this Merchant of Venice provides an essential service. Recently, as reported in the Washington Post, there has been a wave of bomb threats against historically Black colleges and universities, incidents that are being investigated by the FBI as hate crimes. Howard University here in DC received three such threats in just under a month.
In a preliminary report by the Center for Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, 16 of our biggest cities, including New York, LA, and Chicago, experienced a cumulative 44 percent jump in hate crimes last year. Reports of hate crimes against Asian Americans jumped 342 percent from 2020 to 2021. According to the NYPD, antisemitic hate crimes rose 400 percent in New York in February of this year.
At this moment in time, taking a stand against hate is critically important. Productions like this one, designed to alert us to the danger, are not only relevant. They are necessary.
Running Time: Two hours 45 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
The Merchant of Venice plays through April 24, 2022, at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Michael R. Klein Theatre (formerly the Lansburgh), 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC. To purchase tickets ($35–$120) visit ShakespeareTheatre.org or call the Box Office at (202) 547-1122.
The Asides mobile playbill for The Merchant of Venice is online here.
COVID Safety: Patrons must provide proof that they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to attend any performance or public event at Shakespeare Theatre Company. Masks are required for all guests inside, except while eating or drinking in designated locations. For full guidelines, visit the theater’s Health and Safety page.
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare at The Shakespeare Theatre
A Co-Production with the Theatre for A New Audience
Portia: Isabel Arraiza
Prince of Arragon: Varin Ayala
Nerissa: Shirine Babb
Balthazar: Jeff Biehl
Bassanio: Sanjit De Silva
Jessica: Danaya Esperanza
Solanio: Yonatan Gebeyehu
Lorenzo: David Lee Huynh
Prince of Morocco/Duke/Tubal: Maurice Jones
Lancelet Gobbo: Nate Miller
Antonio: Alfredo Narciso
Gratiano: Hayes Thigpen
Shylock: John Douglas Thompson
Salerio: Graham Winton
Fight Captain: David Lee Huynh
Director: Arin Arbus
Scenic Designer: Riccardo Hernandez
Costume Designer: Emily Rebholz
Lighting Designer: Marcus Doshi
Original Music & Sound Design: Justin Ellington
Hair/Wig/Makeup Designer: Tommy Kurzman
Dramaturgy: Jonathan Kalb, Dr. Drew Lichtenberg
Consulting Scholars: James Shapiro, Ayanna Thompson