More than 30 years ago, John Douglas Thompson, then a successful salesman at a Fortune 500 company, saw a play in New Haven, Conn. When it was over, he prayed, “Please, God, make me an actor. Teach me how to do that, and make it possible for me.”
Thompson told me this five years ago, on the floor of a Broadway lobby after finishing a performance of August Wilson’s “Jitney.” And I remembered it last week when I saw him as Shylock in Arin Arbus’ biting, provocative production of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” at Theater for a New Audience.
That prayer has been answered.
Since 2009, when he played Othello – also for Arbus, also on Theater for a New Audience – audiences have recognized Thompson as an outstanding classical actor, arguably the greatest Shakespearean interpreter in contemporary American theater. There are actors with greater plasticity, better grace, more luscious voice. But Thompson, a virtuoso of psychological insight and emotional specificity, makes every age-old line sound like it’s popped up in the moment. In his signature sandpaper rasp, he takes what is timeless and transmutes it into the present. To see him at work is to feel fluttered and light-headed. Blessed perhaps.
“The Merchant of Venice” is a fairy tale with a caustic center, a chocolate filled with battery acid. The plot joins two folk tales, three love stories, and a nerve-wracking trial scene that puts “Perry Mason” to shame. It concerns a melancholy Christian merchant, Antonio (Alfredo Narciso), who borrows 3,000 ducats from a Jewish loan shark, Shylock (Thompson), to finance his friend Bassanio (Sanjit De Silva) — a close friendship that Arbus considers explicitly romantic. considers. Shylock waives interest in favor of an unusual condition: If Antonio is forfeited, Shylock will extract a pound of flesh from his body.
Despite his relationship with Antonio, Bassanio tries to court Portia (a flexible and elegant Isabel Arraiza). To confuse her suitors, her father has challenged them. They must choose from three chests: one gold, one silver and one lead. If a suitor makes the right choice, he will find Portia’s portrait. Otherwise, he must leave, promising that he will never marry. The plots converge in that harrowing courtroom scene, where Portia gives her “quality of grace” speech.
For the past century, scholars have debated whether “Merchant” should be staged at all, especially after the play was used as Nazi propaganda in the 1940s in Germany. Any responsible production has to deal with its uneasy legacy.
Arbus’s solution is to highlight the horror of everyone in Venice, not just Shylock. Grace? Look elsewhere. On the set of Riccardo Hernandez, a Doge’s palace that has undergone a brutalist renovation, and under the grim light of Marcus Doshi, the characters humiliate and betray each other. Even the virtuous Portia casually displays racism and less casual hypocrisy. No one else behaves better. Emily Rebholz’s costumes – casual casual, Vans, a hoodie with ‘Brooklyn’ printed on it – confirm this air of betrayal as long ago or far away.
Thompson’s casting complicates the biases at work in the play, laying Blackness on Shylock’s Jewishness. Black Jews do exist, of course, but despite the interpolation of some lines from a Yom Kippur prayer at the end of the play, it is this Shylock’s blackness and not his Jewishness that emphasizes Arbus’ production. “Casting a black man like Shylock in America in 2021 is making people painfully aware of the connections between Shakespeare’s 16th-century Venice and our world today,” she said in a press release.
This provides certain advantages, giving some lines a special resonance, such as when Shylock says in his speech to the Venetian court:
You have many a bought slave among you,
Who, like your donkeys and your dogs and mules,
You use in abject and in servile parts
Because you bought them. Shall I say to you
Let them be free! Marry them with your heirs!
Why do they sweat under loads? leave their beds
Be made as soft as yours?
Exposing Antonio’s prejudices in the first act, Thompson mockingly takes on the moaning tones of a racist caricature, an unruly and devastating choice that reveals his tortured self-consciousness. He knows how the others see him and how they want him to behave. He refuses. But by taking revenge on those who consider him less than fully human, he loses his own humanity, which is his tragedy.
And yet this doubling feels like displacement—reduction perhaps—especially since it avoids the thorny questions of the play’s own attitude toward Jews. Threats against American Jews have risen rapidly in recent years, as has online harassment. Last month’s hostage-taking at a Texas synagogue was a sobering reminder of hatred with a long history. None of this necessarily makes Arbus’s focus on Blackness wrong. (And who would deny Thompson any role he wanted?) But anti-Blackness and anti-Semitism are not identical. And both continue. That is, was this not painful enough? Weren’t we already aware?
The merchant from Venice
Through March 6 at Theater for a New Audience, Brooklyn; tfana.org. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.