At the opening curtain of Arin Arbus’s remarkable Merchant of Venice at Theatre for a New Audience, the entire cast gather on the stage apron and take a collective deep breath. At first blush, this reads as fussy and dilettante, as if the production is staking a claim to profundity without earning it. The cast does the same at the closing curtain, but by then the gesture seems wholly appropriate and necessary: after what they and the audience have just experienced, everybody could use a deep breath. And probably a drink.
The Merchant of Venice is of course a rich and challenging play even if given a surface reading: in Shylock, Shakespeare has given us a round and compelling character, and the machinations of Venice swirling around him in various subplots invite introspection. But Arbus has progressed much further than the surface. What could be a play that ponders some anti-Semitic themes alongside a few peculiar romances, has become a play about betrayal, wonder, and second-guessing. Along with the familiar but vividly amplified religious bigotry running throughout the script, Arbus has excavated the characters’ racism and homoeroticism, capturing and making unmistakable the class and cultural divide that structures this Venice. The cast is multiracial and multiethnic, but it is by no means colorblind: we are asked to recognize the tight braiding of identity and power. Arbus denies us any happy ending that the play might invite, electing instead to imbue the production with a feeling of ominous worry and regret.
What’s so striking is that Arbus has given such a unique rendering of the play without imposing any undue control on the script. The characters are in sharp modern dress and use cell phones, and the tone is much darker than most Merchant productions (without abandoning its occasional fun), but the play is unmistakably Shakespeare’s. The production’s excellence comes not from imposing a heavy directorial hand, but rather from recognizing and coaxing out shades of meaning from the script rarely captured in their fullest on stage.
At the center of the show is a wonderfully nuanced Shylock by John Douglas Thompson. He and Arbus combine to give Shylock a deep and abiding humanity that becomes most pronounced when most in peril. Throughout the play’s early stages, Thompson shows Shylock balancing a clear sense of dignity with the knowledge that his power to assert such pride in self is limited among the powerful forces that look down upon and discriminate against his Jewishness. But when the opportunity presents itself to stand at full height and show his humanity, even if in violence, Thompson shows Shylock to be entirely justified in his pursuits. This dynamic makes the play’s closing act far more visceral and affecting. The violence and lasting ramifications of Shylock’s forced conversion appear here vividly, as Arbus and Thompson refuse to let the play’s Christian community—and perhaps Shakespeare—underestimate the gravity of their sentence on Shylock. Isabel Arraiza’s excellent Portia accentuates this work importantly: having pronounced the sentence herself, and having witnessed the behavior of her new love Bassanio (Sanjit de Silva) at the trial, Portia evolves rapidly into a mature and introspective leader, troubled by the ramifications of her actions.
A deep breath is wholly warranted after such a fresh and challenging trip through terrain that used to seem so familiar. Arbus shows us Merchant anew, not by importing any external ideas or control, but by insisting that this is the play that has been before us all along, if only we were insightful and stalwart enough to recognize it.