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A great actor tackles ‘The Merchant of Venice’ — one of Shakespeare’s most challenging plays

John Douglas Thompson offers a riveting portrayal of Shylock in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production

John Douglas Thompson as Shylock in Shakespeare Theatre Company's “The Merchant of Venice.” ([[[Henry Grossman, Henry GROSSMAN 917-923-4114], Henry GROSSMAN 917-923-4114], Henry GROSSMAN 917-923-4114]/Shakespeare Theatre Company)
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To her credit, director Arin Arbus lets us see all the ugliest implications of “The Merchant of Venice” in the fascinating production she has staged for the Shakespeare Theatre Company. You can claim for this great and hideous play — in which not a single character escapes shame — an idea that Shakespeare is unflinching in his portrait of vengeance and prejudice. Or you can hear it for “Jew” being used as an epithet so often that the word batters you into inchoate rage.

I’ve sat through the play many times, including versions decades apart starring Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Jonathan Pryce as Shylock, the moneylender who, tormented by the denigration heaped upon him by Christian Venice, seeks bloody recompense for a debt unpaid. Here, John Douglas Thompson, a Shakespearean of commanding presence, takes on the role in the Michael R. Klein Theatre in a moving performance bristling with righteous indignation — a man demanding his literal pound of flesh in the name of a people who have suffered far severer wounds.

That Thompson is a Black actor is of special significance here, for Black and Jewish characters occupy similar perches in Shakespeare: The canon apportions exactly one lead role to each group. “Othello” and “Merchant” — both set in Venice — also are the plays in which a misunderstood ethnic minority figures most prominently as a concern. Thompson’s casting presents an intriguing convergence for an America convulsed in discord over identity and, in particular, the treatment of people of color. It takes no leap of imagination to recognize the abuse that this Shylock of color endures in his daily life.

And Thompson is an actor with the range and magnetism to forge yet another new perspective on a character irresistible to stage stars. Hoffman’s Shylock, in a 1989 Broadway production, was a cunning victim, literally spat upon by virtually every gentile character in the play. Actors such as Mark Nelson, in a 2011 Shakespeare Theatre Company version, and Pryce, at the Kennedy Center in 2016, keyed in on the rational businessman, in search of radical justice. In Central Park in 2010, Pacino delivered perhaps the most tragic Shylock I’ve ever experienced — a man marginalized by society and then humiliated for his audaciousness, to a pitiful degree.

The Shylock of Arbus’s modern-dress “Venice,” staged on Riccardo Hernandez’s neutral, sun-bleached stone set, is a pillar of his own, well-heeled community. He’s callused but unbowed by Christian contempt. I have to confess that as a Jew, I can’t help but root for Shylock — and want to believe that in stacking the deck so transparently against him, Shakespeare wanted me to. “The villainy you teach me, I will execute,” Shylock says, in a line that reverberates with Old Testament, eye-for-an-eye ferocity. Out of Thompson’s mouth, the words don’t seem transgressive. They sound more like the ancient cry of the underdog.

And in the Venice that Arbus conjures, no one stakes out the moral high ground. The production records every relationship as transactional, most pointedly, in the contract Shylock seals with the merchant of the title, Antonio (Alfredo Narciso), who, in exchange for 3,000 desperately needed ducats, promises a pound of flesh if he can’t pay it back. Mercenary interest also underlines the guessing game that avaricious suitors play for the hand in marriage of Portia (Isabel Arraiza), whose nuptial fate (and framed portrait) are contained in one of three caskets of gold, silver and lead.

But this “Merchant” makes plainer than any I’ve seen that the game’s winner, Bassanio (Sanjit De Silva), is a deceiver who is actually in love with Antonio and wants Portia only for her money. (The sexual attraction between Antonio and Bassanio is often suggested, but rarely so clearly portrayed.) Shylock’s daughter, Jessica (Danaya Esperanza), is no better, abandoning her father and stealing his treasure to elope with Christian Lorenzo (David Lee Huynh). Not even Portia, who masterminds a legal sleight of hand to win Antonio’s release from Shylock’s bond, emerges with clean hands: The punishment for Shylock she orchestrates militates against the quality of mercy she espouses.

It’s apt, then, that in light of all the play’s shabby deals and betrayals, no one ends up happy. Some entertaining interludes leaven Arbus’s staging, first produced earlier this year at Brooklyn’s Theatre for a New Audience: In particular, Maurice Jones is a thoroughgoing delight as the excitable Prince of Morocco, the initial failed suitor, and Varín Ayala offers a giddy, foppish turn as the next loser in line, the Prince of Aragon. In pivotal roles, De Silva, Narciso and Arraiza contribute vivid, clearly delineated portrayals — accessibility being a hallmark of the production. As Portia’s servants, Shirine Babb and Jeff Biehl also provide vibrant support.

The dissonance in setting the play in a Venice of 2022, replete with CrossFit training sessions and smartphone conversations, is most evident in the let’s-make-a-deal-to-win-Portia scenes. It’s hard to credit a contemporary woman of such estimable self-possession going through such a demeaning process. And though of course we know that virulent forms of racism and anti-Semitism continue to course through the modern world, the magnitude of malign commentary in “The Merchant of Venice” is wrenching to listen to. That’s not a criticism, just the reality.

So as much as I appreciate the technical refinements of Arbus’s work, reflected also in Emily Rebholz’s chic costumes and Marcus Doshi’s effective lighting, a visit to “The Merchant of Venice” is less joyful release than bracing challenge. Its chief reward is Thompson’s performance — the consolation of a giant talent tackling one of Shakespeare’s toughest plays.

The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Arin Arbus. Set, Riccardo Hernandez; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lighting, Marcus Doshi; music and sound, Justin Ellington. With Yonatan Gebeyehu, Nate Miller, Haynes Thigpen, Graham Winton. About 2 hours 50 minutes. Through April 24 at Michael R. Klein Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. 202-547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.

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