“The Merchant of Venice,” currently playing at The Shakespeare Theatre’s Lansburgh stage, has always been known as a “problem play.” That is, it cannot be classified as either a tragedy or comedy by Bard scholars.
However, its larger conundrum, and what makes it captivating, is its handling of antisemitism. One wonders: Is the script anti-Semitic or does it criticize antisemitism? The answer all depends on whether you think Shylock, a calloused Jewish moneylender, is a sympathetic character.
The Shakespeare Theatre has craftily cast an African American in the role of Shylock– forcing the audience to make connections between both minorities as outcasts. Shylock, as a Black Jew, elicits even more sympathy from an audience inundated with news of Black Lives Matter and the shocking wave of racism against many minorities that is sweeping the country.
The antisemitism spewed his way is painful to witness, as Shakespeare uses the word “Jew” in the play 71 times, including “Villain Jew,” “Faithless Jew,” “Heartless Jew,” “Dog Jew,” “Harsh Jew” and “Currish Jew,” according to Gamzeno.medium.com. Toward the end of the play, Shylock gains the audience’s empathy when he pleads with his accusers, asking, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”
To others, he is a stereotypical greedy Jew who insists on a pound of flesh cut from his body in lieu of interest of his borrower, Antonio, defaults on his loan. He is a villain who gets the punishment he deserves.
Shylock’s opposers would argue that the fact he wants to exact violence on an anti-Semitic borrower is unforgivable. But can we blame Shylock for craving revenge? He is spat on, plagued by derogatory racist comments, and appears to have no allies due to his religion.
No matter your preferred interpretation, we can all agree on this production’s caliber. Director Arin Arbus brilliantly cast John Douglas Thompson in the leading role, whose performance is powerful and full of pathos for his unfortunate plight. Thompson commands our attention as he fills the large and cavernous Lansburgh stage with momentous action and speech.
His formidable Shylock yanks the audience into the story’s sordid plot, forcing us to care about these characters – none who are totally agreeable.
The rest of the cast is sufficient but pale in comparison to Thompson. In a way, this could be deliberate if trying to contrast a superficially cold and uncaring Venetian Christian community with that of the suffering underdog.
Antonio (Alfredo Narciso) is borrowing money for his friend Bassanio (Sanjit De Silva) to help him woo the rich Portia (Isabel Arraiza). All three characters are concerned only by their personal gains. Bassanio, who wins Portia’s hand in marriage by choosing the casket with her picture, is actually in love with Antonio and wants Portia only for her fortune.
Jessica (Danaya Esperanza), Shylock’s daughter, abandons her father and religion and elopes with Christian Lorenzo (David Lee Huynh). Portia comes off as a spoiled child who, disguised as a judge, exacts punishment on Shylock way beyond what would be considered fair.
It’s difficult to muster any sympathy for this motley crew.
The fact this production is set in modern times – with Portia donning a sweatsuit while she practices boxing with her trainer, and the prominent use of cell phones throughout – forces the audience to evaluate the rampant racism and callousness of the plot against a current backdrop, making the play more relevant.
At the same time, the script echoes ancient tenets expressing values that stand the test of time.
“The villainy you teach me, I will execute,” Shylock says to Antonio, defending his reason for revenge with “an eye for an eye” rationale.
Scenic Designer Riccardo Hernandez’s stark set of a massive wall backdrop, in which characters enter and exit through camouflaged doors, leaves little to distract from the disturbing plot. Costume Designer Emily Rebholz’s simplicity of dark suits and dresses makes Shylock stand out from the crowd with his yarmulke and tallit– attire of Orthodox Jews.
The Merchant of Venice is an exercise in intrigue and raw emotion that poses more questions than answers. This production does not disappoint on either attribute.