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Review: THE MERCHANT OF VENICE at Shakespeare Theatre Company

Performances extended through Sunday, April 24

Review: THE MERCHANT OF VENICE at Shakespeare Theatre Company

Getting a firm grasp on The Merchant of Venice is a Sisyphean task: as soon as a clear message rings through, the boulder of meaning rolls back down the hill, and you need to reorient yourself completely. This is why it's so exhilarating to interpret, and Shakespeare Theatre Company's (STC) co-production with Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA) offers a rendition that fully embraces the play's unsettling slipperiness.

The Merchant of Venice is traditionally categorized as a comedy, but the character of Shylock anchors one of Shakespeare's most maddening tragic arcs. Shylock is a collage of antisemitic stereotypes, and yet he defies caricature through his incisive perspective on the cruelty and hypocrisy of the Christians who are determined to see his downfall. In STC and TFANA's production, Shylock is played by the magnificent John Douglas Thompson, who embodies the role with showstopping candor. His powerful interpretations of Shylock's frank yet painfully contorted appeals for justice make this production unmissable.

While Shylock's complexities are often the focus of contemporary discussions of The Merchant of Venice, several storylines weave together to create the play's bizarre narrative tapestry. The story begins with Antonio, the titular merchant who borrows 3,000 ducats from Jewish moneylender Shylock. Antonio enters into this arrangement with Shylock because of his love for young Bassanio, who needs the money to court Portia of Belmont. Even though Antonio makes it more difficult for Shylock to profit from loans by lending money without interest and has a history of mistreating Jews, Shylock agrees to provide the money on one condition: if Antonio is unable to pay back the loan, Shylock can collect "a pound of [his] fair flesh, to be cut off and taken" from the body part of his choosing.

Review: THE MERCHANT OF VENICE at Shakespeare Theatre Company

Meanwhile, Shylock's daughter Jessica is in love with a Christian named Lorenzo, and Shylock is devastated when she elopes with him. Another storyline revolves around Portia and the conditions that her late father has arranged to determine which of her many suitors will win her hand in marriage. The stories intersect at the play's climax when Portia comes to court disguised as a male lawyer to defend Antonio's life when he is not able to repay Shylock's loan. The play winds down with victorious Christians and a defeated Shylock and closes with a starkly lighthearted vignette in which Portia and her maid Nerissa trick their husbands into giving away prized rings and then dramatically reveal their scheme.

For 2022 audiences, this sequence of events is a rollercoaster of uncomfortably juxtaposed moments. One minute we're laughing along with Bassanio's men as they drink and joke with each other, and the next we are gasping in horror as they spit on Shylock. We smile at the witty banter of Portia (portrayed with ebullient energy by Isabel Arraiza) in one scene, recoil at her casual racism in another, and can't help but marvel at her boldness and spunk in the next. First we're laughing with servant Lancelet (the scene-stealing Nate Miller) as he jokes warmly with Jessica (played brilliantly by Danaya Esperanza), and then we cringe as we find out that he's told her that she won't get into heaven as a Jew's daughter.

As the playfulness in Merchant swiftly gives way to queasiness, meaning mutates and the audience is back at the bottom of the metaphorical hill: the minute the play seems to be firmly asserting the humanity of Venice's outsiders, it's undermined viciously, and as soon as this couldn't seem more definitively condemning, moments of redemption emerge. The choice to cast Black actors as Shylock and Jessica complicates this web of resonances as racial and ethnic identities intertwine and echo throughout the characters' journeys. Of course, any play written four hundred years ago will have some of this disorienting effect for a modern audience. But The Merchant of Venice is a story about ethnic identity and justice, and the context of contemporary life puts its discomfiting edges into uniquely sharp relief.

Review: THE MERCHANT OF VENICE at Shakespeare Theatre Company

In STC's production, this is heightened by the costume design by Emily Rebholz, as modern outfits ranging from spandex workout gear (Portia) to frat boy-esque preppy attire (Gratiano) to trendy jackets and sneakers provide a painfully current context for the characters' charged barbs and jabs. The set design by Riccardo Hernandez casts a brutalist pall over this fashionable mix and suggests the overbearing weight of Venice's cultural norms. This ominous sense is further intensified by the lighting design by Marcus Doshi, especially in the second act when bold contrast evokes high tragedy rather than comedy, creating an especially dissonant atmosphere in the play's penultimate scenes.

The cast collectively takes an even approach to the unevenness of the play by not shying away from awkward moments where comedy and tragedy intersect. Some examples: Sanjit De Silva as Bassanio broke the tension of Shylock's "pound of flesh" offer with a cringing burst of laughter. Haynes Thigpen's hilariously sleazy Gratiano elicited uneasy giggles from the audience with his over-the-top praise of Portia's judgment in the courtroom scene. Shirine Babb as Nerissa shone with pitch-perfect comic relief as a kind of audience stand-in during the otherwise humdrum scenes in Belmont. Breaking the tension in this way provides sporadic peeks through the fourth wall, as the performers highlight moments that have altered resonance in a modern-day setting.

Rather than ending the play with a crude double-entendre from Gratiano as originally written, director Arin Arbus added a short but poignant scene to close this production. In the text, a broken Shylock makes his final exit by resigning to his fate in the Christian court with the hollow line: "I am content." But in STC's Merchant, Shylock and Jessica return to the stage at the very end of the play to recite a Jewish prayer called the Kol Nidre. This prayer is thought to have originated due to the forced conversion of Jewish people during the Spanish Inquisition since it allows Jews to recant forced vows they have made during the year so that they can freely celebrate Yom Kippur, the holy Day of Atonement. One line from the Kol Nidre says, "Our vows shall not be considered vows; our renunciations shall not be considered renunciations; and our promises shall not be considered promises."

Review: THE MERCHANT OF VENICE at Shakespeare Theatre Company

As Shylock and Jessica brought the play to a close with this shared recitation of the Kol Nidre, the excruciating paradox of their situation rears its head: to coexist, they cannot be themselves, and so to seek justice in a community that doesn't value their identity is a betrayal of the self and that community. And yet justice must still be sought, no matter what is lost in the balance. The layering of Blackness and Jewishness here is weighted with centuries of history, and this bookend to the production is powerfully resonant for the here and now: it shows that after the victors have celebrated and gone to bed, what's left is a cycle of hurt that can only be broken, maybe, with real justice.

Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission

The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare Theatre Company has been extended through April 24. Tickets can be purchased online at or by calling the STC box office at 202.547.1122. Discounts are available for military, students, seniors, and audience members under the age of 36. Performances are located at the Michael R. Klein Theatre at the Lansburgh (450 7th St NW, Washington, D.C. 20004), and you can visit the safety page on STC's website to view the covid-19 requirements for this production.

Regional Awards

From This Author - Dara Homer

Dara Homer grew up reading, writing, and performing in plays and musicals in Miami, Florida. She graduated cum laude from Columbia University with a degree in English and Comparative Literature, an... (read more about this author)

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