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Review: The Merchant of Venice Stars John Douglas Thompson as Shakespeare's Jewish Moneylender

Portia: hero or villain?

Shylock (John Douglas Thompson) prepares to cut his pound of flesh from Antonio (Alfredo Narciso) in the Theatre for a New Audience production of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, directed by Arin Arbus, at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center.
(© (Gerry Goodstein)

"The earth belongs to the living, and not to the dead," Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in September 1789 (the same month Congress approved Madison's Bill of Rights). He was decrying the practice of previous generations binding present generations to laws they did not pass, and debts they did not accrue. Essentially, he was arguing against the US Constitution existing in perpetuity, an argument he clearly lost. Jefferson's ideas might have seemed radical in the 18th century, but was merely echoing Portia, the female protagonist (antagonist?) of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, now receiving a vital and invigorating revival from Theatre for a New Audience.

Portia (played here by Isabel Arraiza) is the heir to a fabulous fortune, but she is bound to a bizarre stipulation of her late father's will, which requires her suitors to choose correctly among three boxes to win Portia's hand, like contestants in Let's Make a Deal. "So is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father," Portia laments.

Varín Ayala plays the Prince of Arragon in The Merchant of Venice.
(© Henry Grossman)

While she is pursued by the Prince of Morocco (Maurice Jones) and the Prince of Arragon (Varín Ayala, hilariously lisping in Spanglish), she is most interested in Bassanio (Sanjit De Silva) — but he is neither a prince nor particularly wealthy. He asks his friend, Antonio (Alfredo Narciso), for money to help put him on a competitive footing with the other suitors, but Antonio's capital is all tied up in merchant ships. Antonio allows his friend (here portrayed as something more) to use his credit to secure a loan, but the only person willing to take the deal is Shylock (John Douglas Thompson), a Jewish lender who hates Antonio and demands a pound of his flesh as collateral. Unwisely, the lovestruck Christians agree to the bargain.

In the four centuries since this play's debut, portrayals of Shylock have become increasingly sympathetic, highlighting the discrimination the Jewish businessman faces in a militantly Catholic society, as well as the callous way his daughter, Jessica (Danaya Esperanza), absconds with his money to elope with a Christian, Lorenzo (David Lee Huynh, wallowing in bro-ish menace). It's enough to make anyone bitter. This production is no exception in its sensitivity to anti-Semitism; although director Arin Arbus never seeks to paper-over Shylock's real malice and its potentially bloody consequences.

John Douglas Thompson plays Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.
(© Henry Grossman)

As Shylock, Thompson once again proves why he is the greatest classical actor in this city. In one extraordinarily layered performance, he conveys Shylock's public smarminess, his private resentment, his fatherly tenderness, subsequent grief, and eventual wrath — it's all so recognizably human. Undergirding his sturdy character arc is a steadfast belief in the laws of Venice and the idea that they will be applied equally to Jew and Christian alike. We shouldn't be surprised that it takes one of the richest ladies in Italy to disabuse him of this notion.

I have long felt that Portia is the true villain of this play, but modern productions in thrall to the cult of the girl boss rarely recognize it. Masquerading as a Paduan jurist named Balthasar in a scheme to rescue Antonio from his obligations, she pontificates to Shylock about mercy yet refuses to extend any when the tables are turned. She is her father's daughter, a wealthy sadist who knows that words on the page can be manipulated to her will because power is power.

Isabel Arraiza plays Portia, and Jeff Biehl plays her personal assistant in The Merchant of Venice.
(© Gerry Goodstein)

Arbus's production seems prepared to go there and allow Portia to be her true, ruthless self. This is especially apparent in the dark fifth act, which Marcus Doshi starkly lights, casting shadows on Riccardo Hernandez's cold and imposing set (the gaping hole in the marble edifice of the state is, perhaps, too on-the-nose a design metaphor). In these scenes, Portia has all the warmth of a war hero turned dictator, and it is obvious that everyone onstage is terrified of her.

Unfortunately, Arraiza resists this direction, perhaps in her own attempt to humanize Portia. Even as she turns the screws on Shylock, she seems to apologize for her actions, gulping back her words as if possessed by some malevolent spirit. If she really felt such guilt, why not just let Shylock walk away with the cash option? And why, after she has won her case, does she choose to further torture Bassanio with her ring test, if she does not delight in such twisted games?

That contradiction aside, this production of Merchant of Venice couldn't be timelier. Emily Rebholz's contemporary costumes suggest that this is very much a story for our own merchant republic, in which the contract is king and yet there always seems to be a loophole for members of the charmed circle — the very people who ridiculously feel like they have the moral high ground to lecture everyone else about the rule of law. It's almost as outrageous as a slaveholder complaining that the laws of his forebears represent an intolerable bondage. Jefferson must have known deep down that, when it comes to rich guys like him, where there's a will there's a way.