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Review: "The Merchant of Venice" Needs to Retire

Let’s be honest here for a moment. I get it. Shakespeare’s works are old. Most of them have been performed hundreds of times in hundreds of different ways. It’s natural to want to find ways to keep his work interesting and fresh for audiences. Directed by Arin Arbus, The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of “The Merchant of Venice” hopes to do just that. Originally written by William Shakespeare, the play is technically classified as one of his comedies. But Arbus’ production is quite the opposite, and rather than effectively reconstructing this controversial play for modern audiences, it tries to make this already problematic piece into something larger, darker, and more grandiose than it needs to be.

The production tells the story of Bassanio (Sanjit De Silva) as he seeks to woo the beautiful and wealthy Portia of Belmont (Isabel Arraiza). Having no money of his own, he enlists the help of his friend Antonio (Alfredo Narciso), a wealthy merchant in the city of Venice. However, Antonio’s assets are tied up at sea, so he promises to cover a bond if Bassanio can find a lender. Bassanio turns to the Jewish money lender Shylock (John Douglas Thompson), who is initially reluctant to do business with Antonio due to his distaste for Antiono’s fiscal habits and wildly antisemetic behavior.

Sanjit De Silva in "The Merchant of Venice"

However, they strike a deal, and Shylock agrees to lend the money under the condition that Antonio pays him back by the specified date. Otherwise, Shylock gets one pound of Antonio’s flesh. But more on this blatant display of antisemetic undertones in a moment.

Plot aside, most of the acting is relatively solid. Arraiza is lovely as the graceful Portia, and Shirine Babb gives her character Nerissa a sort of feminist spunk. Nate Miller’s portrayal of the snarky and brash Lancelet Gobbo is by far the most entertaining part of the show, due in part to his ability to give his speech modern inflection and attitude, rather than the same Shakespearan cadence of his fellow castmates.

Shirine Babb (L) and Isabel Arraiza in "The Merchant of Venice"

But the cast of any production is only a part of the pie. The original text of “The Merchant of Venice” has long since been criticized for containing antisemetic themes and dialogue. While some argue that this was Shakespeare’s way of commenting on the European view of Jews at the time and actually paints Shylock as a sympathetic character, Arbus’ production misses the mark and is instead just appalling in its interpretation.

Don’t get me wrong. The play does shine a light on the antisemitism and hatred that still run deep in our society, which I suppose is the point in grand scheme of things. But getting to this point? Jarring, and not in the artistic sort of way. There is a difference between shock value to make a statement and blatant disrespect. And ripping a kippah (traditional head covering Jewish males wear as an honor to their God) and tallit (prayer shawl that is worn as a mark of solidarity and devotion to the religion) off of someone’s body and throwing them to the ground undoubtedly falls into that latter category. The play already dehumanizes the character of Shylock by villainizing him with his demands for human flesh. But adding these small acts of accepted hate and aggression toward Shylock enforces the idea that the entire Jewish people are barbarians. The wearing of a kippah and tallit are two sacred practices in Judaism, and they are never supposed to touch the floor. Ripping them off of Thompson’s body and throwing them on the ground day after day after day? I would argue that the line of disrespect not only has been crossed, but this deliberate action adds nothing of value to the plot itself. I assure you, the play’s message and anger for the character and Jewish people as a whole are already well articulated without it.

John Douglas Thompson in "The Merchant of Venice"

To his credit, Thompson takes on the role of the anguished Shylock with authenticity and integrity, and he delivers the famous “Hath a Jew not eyes?” speech as a haunting, guttural statement on humanity. It is clear that Shylock is supposed to be the sympathetic character in all of this, but the way in which the play gets to this point goes beyond the realm of that “uncomfortable but still acceptable” sweet spot.

But let’s take away the anti-semitism argument for a moment. The whole staging of the production was just bizarre from beginning to end. As a matter of personal taste, I am not the biggest fan of “modernizing” classic texts. Change up the dialogue and stick it in a new setting? Sure. But keeping the original text and modernizing the technical elements/props of the piece? Not usually for me. That being said, I can respect when it is done well and adds something of value to the piece.

John Douglas Thompson (L) and Alfredo Narciso in "The Merchant of Venice"

But in this case, I just have to ask: why bother? The set was a simple, albeit grand, set of stairs that spanned the length of the stage and the dialogue was true to Shakespeare’s original form. So why bother having Arraiza run laps in workout leggings before her character is introduced? Do Bassanio and his friends really need to be holding paper coffee cups and wearing dapper suits as they discuss their plans? This choice to modernize these small elements doesn't really hinder the production, but it doesn’t add to it either. Instead, the whole thing just comes off as a bit bizarre.

But this odd-yet-ignorable sort of modernization pales when compared to the baffling artistic choices made in regards to the physical staging of the production. As with any good piece of theater, there are subplots for other characters as they plug their way through the story toward a larger goal. But rather than flowing together naturally, think of each subplot here as its own bubble. They sort of bump into each other enough to see the connection, but they never really collide. Take Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Danaya Esperanza) as an example. In the original text, she renounces her Judaism, steals money from her father, and runs away to marry a Christian man. Arbus’ production does hit this point, but takes it several non-verbal steps further. Without adding any additional dialogue, this version of Jessica finds herself in an abusive, unhappy relationship with her playboy husband Lorenzo (David Lee Huynh). I suppose this twisted change is designed to create a parallel between the pain Jessica feels and that of her father, but the whole thing just feels excessive.

John Douglas Thompson (L) and Danaya Esperanza in "The Merchant of Venice"

To the actors’ credit, their performances are commendable, given the adaptations and stylistic choices made with the material. But rather than coming off as profound and artistic, the whole thing feels forced. While it does tackle the issue of antisemitism, the production focuses more on providing shock value than it does on creating a powerful, resonant piece of art.

All that said, it might just be time to retire this particular play from the repertoire. Shakespeare has enough plays that provide some

sort of commentary, be it political, social, or religious, that theater companies have more than enough content to choose from without having to resort to something like “Hamlet” or “Romeo and Juliet” (don’t get me wrong- I’m a sucker for a good retelling of “Romeo and Juliet,” but I see the value in wanting to perform something a little less mainstream).

“The Merchant of Venice” runs at The Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington DC at the Michael R. Klein Theatre through April 24, 2022. The production runs 2 hours and 45 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission, and contains themes that may not be suitable for young audiences. Tickets can be purchased here.

All photo credit to Henry Grossman.