Arin Arbus, resident director at Theatre for a New Audience, staging her tenth classic for them took a great risk with her new production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: not only putting this 1597 play in modern dress, she has made Venice diversely multicultural as well as having the Jewish Shylock played by an African American. All of these things might have backfired and looked out of place. Surprisingly it all works, due to her spare, stripped-down direction, her fine cast, the nearly bare stone setting by Riccardo Hernandez which suggests an elegant Greek amphitheater, and her star, John Douglas Thompson with whom she has worked four times before in an assortment of classics. Along with the work of voice director Andrew Wade, the diction is crystal clear and Shakespeare’s verse sounds conversational and newly minted.
The Merchant of Venice famously deals with anti-Semitism and Arbus further updates the play by making the Christian Venetians guilty of virulent prejudice toward Jews. When Antonio, the merchant of Venice, attempts to borrow 3,000 ducats from Shylock, the Jewish money-lender who he has always scorned before, he refuses to shake his hand or look him in the eye. Others of his friends spit upon Shylock. However, to help out his indigent friend Bassanio who needs the money to woo the rich Portia, the heiress of Belmont, he agrees to Shylock’s unusual request of no interest but a bond of a pound of flesh to be cut off his body if he can’t repay the loan in the agreed upon three months, his revenge for years’ of insults and injuries. When Shylock chides Antonio and his friends for how the Venetians treat their slaves and servants, it has an extra sting coming from a Black actor.
The second plot strand is the wooing of the wealthy Portia but whose father created a test of the three caskets: all suitors must choose between lead, silver and gold caskets, one of which includes Portia’s picture. If they choose incorrectly, they have to agree to leave immediately and never marry in the future. When Portia makes a racist remark about her African suitor the Prince of Morocco, she receives a withering look from her companion and servant Nerissa played by the Black actress Shirine Babb. Another plot strand is that of Shylock’s daughter, the heiress Jessica, falling in love with Gratiano (Haynes Thigpen), a Venetian Christian, and eloping with him to the bereavement of her father, and she is played by Black actress Danaya Esperanza who gives as good as she gets from moody boyfriend Lorenzo (David Lee Huynh).
Thompson’s Shylock is courtly, dignified and reserved. From his dialogue, he is the most educated, intelligent man in Venice, putting the others to shame each time he opens his mouth. In his famous speech shaming the Venetians over their bigotry, that begins “Hath not a Jew eyes?” Thompson speaks it as though he is making it up on the spot, completely original, rather than as a set monologue in quotes. When he loses his daughter and his jewels which she steals from him to fund her elopement, his pain is palpable. Thompson is much more sympathetic as Shylock than many other actors have been in the past.
Isabel Arraiza’s Portia is utterly charming both as an heiress in her own home and later in disguise as the “Balthazar,” a young male doctor of law when she officiates over the Shylock/Antonio trial scene in Venice. She makes her “Quality of Mercy” speech fresh and spontaneous, rather than the old chestnut it often sounds. Her love scenes with Sanjit De Silva’s Bassanio are extremely tender and tentative as they are growing to know each other. Alfredo Narciso’s Antonio is a believably melancholy brooding figure but lacks stature in his very reserve. His relationship with Bassanio, the friend for whom he is willing to risk his life, is depicted as strictly romantic, an issue that is often avoided in other productions.
One of the best features of the production is that all of the cast of 14 are so well depicted and defined that we always know who everyone is and no one is ever confused with anyone else, not always true in large cast Shakespeare plays. Babb makes Nerissa a very efficient secretary as Portia’s lady-in-waiting while Jeff Biehl is wry as her chief steward. Nate Miller’s Lancelot Gobbo, servant first to Shylock and then to Bassanio, is very impudent and forward in his sunglasses and sneakers. Maurice Jones and Varín Ayala as Portia’s suitors, The Prince of Morocco and the Prince of Arragon (to whom Portia speaks Spanish), are amusing in their imperial arrogance. While some of Antonio’s friends are uproarious in their revelry, Graham Winton’s Salerio is almost as dour and sober as the merchant taking his mercantile losses with gravity.
The unit set by Hernandez is a series of white stone steps backed by a two-story wall which includes two doors. A few tables and chairs are brought on as necessary. Like in Greek theater, and in Elizabethan theater for that matter, this unit setting works beautifully for all of the locales. Emily Rebholz’s costumes are evenly divided between suits and sportswear for the men and pants, skirts and dresses for the women. This perfectly reflects the modern sensibility of the production along with smartphones which never interfere with Shakespeare’s story. Thompson’s Shylock is dressed in sober three piece suits, a black yarmulke and tzitzit, the fringe that Hasidic men wear under their shirts. He is the most formally dressed of the characters. Other members of the artistic team include Marcus Doshi’s lighting and Justin Ellington’s original music and sound design.
Aside from the bravura performance by John Douglas Thompson, one of our finest classical actors, Arin Arbus’ staging of The Merchant of Venice, a co-production of Theatre for a New Audience and Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company finds new relevance in this four hundred year old play. She has even added a coda for Shylock and Jessica which makes the play even more poignant. While anti-Semitism and racism seem to be ever on the rise in our time, this Merchant of Venice speaks to us in a new way, making this well-known text shine with new meaning.
The Merchant of Venice (through March 6, 2022)
Theatre for a New Audience
Co-produced with Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington, D.C.
Samuel H. Scripps Mainstage of the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, in Brooklyn
For tickets, visit http://www.tfana.org
Running time: two hours and 55 minutes with one intermission