For all the cultural baggage we’ve forced him to lug around and all the dramaturgical hand-wringing he inspires, Shylock is a remarkably scarce presence in the text of The Merchant of Venice. He speaks fewer lines than you’d guess. He spends the entire fifth act offstage, while the lovers chirpily resolve all that business about the missing rings. And even when Shylock shuffles into the middle of the action, we don’t learn much about the details of his life, save that his wife has died and he’s raising a rebellious daughter by himself, à la Tony Danza. He’s a little short on what Hollywood people call backstory.

In Shylock, his one-man show for Theater J, Gareth Armstrong gives the moneylender a story that stretches back several hundred years—giving flesh to a character remembered mostly for wanting a pound of it. Armstrong’s narrative begins in the 13th century, when the Jews were expelled from England, and includes histories of Jewish ghettos, of which Venice’s was the first; Jews in dramatic literature, starting with Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (Armstrong puts on a skullcap with long wig attached to play a sneering Barabas); the origins of the Blood Libel and the word “bowdlerize”; and the actors who made names for themselves in the famously tricky role. He stands on a set by David H. Smart (who also designed the elegant lighting) that includes only a traveling case with the words “Merchant of Venice” stenciled on it (there’s that baggage!), a chair, and a small table. Simon Slater’s original music adds a mournful touch. It’s a simple base for an assured, poignant, and frequently very funny exploration of a character who’s haunted the edges of Western consciousness for 400 years.

Armstrong, a Welsh-born actor with shining eyes and a salt-and-pepper beard, isn’t interested in simply turning himself into Shylock. He wants to examine the character from the outside in. He chooses Tubal, the only other Jewish man in Shakespeare’s script, to act as a guide, and speaks in that voice throughout much of the performance. Tubal, as you may have forgotten, is not exactly a dominating presence in The Merchant of Venice, either. He’s more like the wispy suggestion of a character, a shadowy representation of Shylock’s unseen tribe. (Hath a Jew not friends?) He is most valuable to Shylock for bringing him the news that Antonio, who has put himself up as collateral for his friend Bassanio’s loan, “is undone”—that one of his ships has wrecked. “One scene, eight lines,” Armstrong says as Tubal. “That’s my contribution.”

Armstrong’s decision to investigate Shylock via Tubal at first seems curious and a little risky, given that Tubal is such a cipher. It’s an odd strategy: Even in rescuing Shylock from the margins, the play insists on maintaining its distance, in looking at him obliquely. This has the disadvantage, at least when Tubal is speaking, of keeping Shylock locked up in objecthood, like a specimen in a glass case. But in the end, the approach—helped by Frank Barrie’s careful direction, which makes great use of long stretches of silence—pays rich dividends. Armstrong says that Tubal “is crucial to the play.” He means both Shakespeare’s and the one we’re watching. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Stoppard’s reinterpretation of Hamlet, Tubal leads us into that dramatic world that thrives beyond the edge of the printed page. And eventually he proves an engaging presence, a foil to a larger, more complex man, and a savvy observer of character—our own Nick Carraway.

Occasionally, the show begins to resemble a lecture, as Armstrong holds forth on Jewish and European history. On the other hand, when he acts out material from Merchant that includes several characters, the effect is sometimes more confusing than compelling; in the manic trial scene, for example, it’s hard to tell when Portia has given way to the Duke, or the Duke to Shylock. And some of the humor is too insistent, particularly a scene where Armstrong plays shrink and psychoanalyzes Shylock’s desire for Antonio’s flesh. (Forgive me for putting it this way, but the quality of humor is definitely not strained.) Yet for every one of these side trips that gets bogged down, there’s another that’s devastatingly on point. After describing King Edward’s 1290 decision to throw the Jews out of England, Armstrong says, “That expulsion idea, it caught on”—a line that drew gasps from the audience in the performance I saw. Later, he mentions that “Hitler loved The Merchant of Venice,” adding quietly, “So it can never be seen the same way again, if Hitler loved The Merchant of Venice.”

Armstrong has a classically trained actor’s mastery of diction—there’s a fantastic scene where he tries, red-faced, to get through eight lines of blank verse in a single breath—and an ease on stage that comes with having performed this material hundreds of times, all over Europe and now in the United States. But there are also immediacy and rawness in his delivery; he tries to set the thing on fire again every night. (The effect is all the more powerful at the Goldman Theater, where he seems close enough to reach out and grab the people in the first row.) About midway through the show, while he’s describing the great Shylocks in stage history, Armstrong talks about the “magic triangle” that connects playwright, actor, and viewer. In the case of his own Shylock, for which he is both writer and performer, the bond is more linear—he’s flattened the triangle into a direct, taut link between himself and his audience. Armstrong then manipulates that connection like fishing wire—hooking us early on and then carefully, over the course of 90 minutes, reeling us in. CP