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The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice

Shakespeare Theatre Company
Jordan Wright
March 29, 2022

Held in the recently rebranded The Michael R. Klein Theatre at the Lansburgh, Director and Obie Award-winner, Arin Arbus’s modernist vision of The Merchant of Venice is an exercise in portraying Shylock as a sympathetic character and his Venetian enemies as the vile racist snobs they are. Starring the brilliant actor, John Douglas Thompson, as Shylock, the play reveals a dreadful era when Venetian society frowned on Jews and other minorities but depended on their business acumen in times of financial woe. We cannot fail to see the relevance to our current state of the world.

Shakespeare purists with not be at home with the modern-day costumes, occasional American slang, and reworking of the characters. For me, it only proves Shakespeare’s relevance to our modern lives. Has anything changed since Jessica uttered, “Love is blind.”?  When the Princes of Morocco and of Aragon choose the casket they hope will win the fair Portia, they foolishly reveal their egos and cupidity. Even the Prince of Morocco, who admits, “All that glisters is not gold,” failed to heed that sage advice. When Portia rhymes “lead” with “dead” to as a hint to Bassanio, he ignores both the gold and the silver caskets to win her hand with the lowly lead casket.

How to handle Shylock in this play is the director’s challenge. He is both a sympathetic character and a vengeful man and that is made clear. Still, we are drawn into his dilemma of his daughter Jessica who betrays him, Antonio who takes advantage of him and all those others who degrade him. Lessons in morality and religion are not readily solved here. Ego and intransigence bring everyone down. Nevertheless, The Bard is always on top of morality and, of course, women dressing in drag to fool the men! In fine form, Arbus ends with Jessica reconnecting with her father as they recite the centuries-old Kol Nidre Hebrew prayer.

A simple stage set focusses on the unfolding drama, and we are treated to a memorably powerful portrayal of Shylock by Thompson counterbalanced by the engaging Isabel Arraiza as Portia. Shirine Babb, Portia’s backup bae, shines as Nerissa. Nate Miller brings much-needed comic relief as Lancelet and Alfredo Narciso brings the requisite evil as Antonio.

With Varin Ayala as Prince of Aragon; Jeff Biehl as Balthazar; Sanjit De Silva as Bassanio; Danaya Esperanza as Jessica; Yonatan Gebeyehu as Solanio; David Lee Huynh as Lorenzo; Maurice Jones as Prince of Morocco/Duke/Tubal; Nate Miller as Lancelet Gobbo; Haynes Thigpen as Gratiano; and Graham Winton as Saliero.

Lighting by Marcus Doshi; Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Design by Emily Rebholz; Original Music and Sound Design by Justin Ellington.

Through April 24th at The Michael R. Klein Theatre at the Lansburgh.

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