The Merchant of Venice
John Douglas Thompson and Danaya Esperanza star in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s The Merchant of Venice Credit: Henry Grossman

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It’s a somewhat recent trend, at least on the timeline of playwrights who got their big breaks in the 1590s, for William Shakespeare’s plays to once again be performed in their entirety. Once upon a time, it was more common for famous actors to perform selected speeches or scenes from the First Folio rather than devote an entire evening to a one play, or to share their valuable stage time with the second gravedigger or whomever. While this may seem like sacrilege—or at best, an approach that relegates the immortal Bard of Avon to a mere songwriter charged with keeping a diva supplied with worthy material—there are times when there’s value in this less reverent, Greatest Hits-style methodology. 

Shakespeare Theatre’s The Merchant of Venice (a co-production with Brooklyn’s Theatre for a New Audience, where the show ran earlier this year) is a case in point. Director Arin Arbus has given a racial recoding to Shakespeare’s ugliest “comedy,” casting Black actors—headliner John Douglas Thompson, newly recognizable for his roles on HBO’s Mare of Easttown and The Gilded Age, and Danaya Esperanza—as the the play’s two Jewish characters. Thompson plays Shylock, the pitiless moneylender who famously presses his legal right to carve “a pound of flesh” from his Christian debtor Antonio, and Esperanza portrays Jessica, Shylock’s daughter who abandons him (and Judaism) to elope with a Christian. 

Stratfordians will endlessly debate whether the playwright intended to interrogate the anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism of his Elizabethan audiences by serving them a show wherein Shylock is the villain, but every character espouses some measure of bigotry. And ambitious directors like Arbus—whose five-show collaboration with Thompson began with the relatively uncomplicated Shakespearean race play Othello in 2009—will always relish a text as richly problematic, in the maddeningly reductive current parlance, as this one. What better way to test their interpretive skills? Aaron Posner went beyond mere interpretation six years ago with District Merchants, a full-on Merchant of Venice rewrite set in Reconstruction-era D.C. In Posner’s version, Shylock was White, but Antonio, the delinquent (and openly anti-Semitic) borrower he wanted to carve up, was Black.

Arbus (who is White), of course, has assigned herself the thornier task of commenting upon 21st century race relations without updating Shakespeare’s 16th-century language. So, for example, when Portia, the heiress whose suitors must choose among caskets of gold, silver, or lead to win her, dismisses the unsuccessful Prince of Morocco (Black actor Maurice Jones) with the line, “Let all of his complexion choose me so,” her servant, Nerissa—played by Black actor Shirine Babb—can look scornful but offer no protest.

The result of this fidelity to the text in a production set in the present day (there are cell phones, bags of cocaine, etc.) is high tension, but perhaps not the kind Airbus intended. What she has is a fully persuasive and entrancing lead performance from Thompson, surrounded by a lot of enervating nonsense that isn’t remotely as urgent or arresting. Every time Shylock left the stage, I found myself counting the minutes until his return. And after the climactic courtroom scene wherein Shylock is first denied the gruesome revenge he has chosen over a many-fold cash repayment of Antonio’s debt, then is subsequently stripped of his wealth, forcibly converted to Christianity and exiled, I found myself exhausted and desperate to be released. But there are two scenes and 20 minutes of low-stakes, mistaken-identity folderol—so overfamiliar from the funny Shakepearean comedies—yet to be endured. 

There are countless still-common idioms we can trace back to Will, the Glover’s Son, but nowhere among them is “always leave ‘em wanting less.”

It’s possible Arbus wants us to squirm through this protracted coda, and is trying to provoke something like the physical anguish over racial inequity that Branden Jacobs-Jenkins encodes into his plays. But it’s more likely that the tonal adjustment from Shylock’s foiled campaign of vengeance and suffering—so vividly realized by Thompson!—to the soporific couples-reunited stuff that follows is just too sharp a turn to make without flying right over the guardrail. 

To have a brilliant Black artist like Thompson perform the Act IV, Scene I speech wherein Shylock says he has as much a right to Antonio’s “dearly bought” hide as a slaveowner has to “a purchased slave, which, like your asses and your dogs and mules, you use in abject and in slavish parts,” is like splitting the atom. The results are undeniably powerful, but it’s an undirected power. Arbus, in hoping to discomfit if not enlighten her audience, has simply wrung us dry.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare and directed by Arin Arbus runs through April 24 at the Michael R. Klein Theatre at the Lansburgh. $35–$120.