Greater than 30 years in the past, John Douglas Thompson, then a profitable salesman at a Fortune 500 firm, noticed a play in New Haven, Conn. When it was over, he supplied up a prayer: “Please, God, make me an actor. Educate me how to do this, and make this doable for me.”
Thompson instructed me this five years ago, on the ground of a Broadway foyer after ending a efficiency of August Wilson’s “Jitney.” And I remembered it final week, watching him as Shylock in Arin Arbus’s caustic, provocative manufacturing of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” at Theater for a New Viewers.
That prayer has been answered.
Since 2009, when he played Othello — also for Arbus, additionally at Theater for a New Viewers — audiences have acknowledged Thompson as an impressive classical actor, maybe the best Shakespeare interpreter in modern America theater. There are actors of higher plasticity, higher grace, lusher voice. However Thompson, a virtuoso of psychological perception and emotional specificity, makes every centuries-old line sound prefer it has occurred to him within the second. In his distinctive sandpaper rasp, he takes what’s timeless and transmutes it to the current. To observe him work is to really feel fluttery, lightheaded. Blessed, possibly.
“The Service provider of Venice” is a fairy story with a corrosive heart, a chocolate full of battery acid. Its plot joins two folks tales, three love tales and a nerve-splintering trial scene that places “Perry Mason” to disgrace. It issues a melancholy Christian service provider, Antonio (Alfredo Narciso), who borrows 3,000 ducats from a Jewish usurer, Shylock (Thompson), to fund his pal Bassanio (Sanjit De Silva) — a detailed friendship that Arbus renders as explicitly romantic. Shylock forgoes curiosity in favor of an uncommon situation: If Antonio forfeits, Shylock will extract a pound of flesh from his physique.
Regardless of his relationship with Antonio, Bassanio is wooing Portia (a versatile and chic Isabel Arraiza). To confound her suitors, her father has set them a problem. They’ve to decide on amongst three caskets: one gold, one silver, one lead. If a suitor chooses accurately, he’ll discover Portia’s portrait. In any other case, he has to go away, with the promise that he won’t ever marry. The plots mix in that harrowing courtroom scene, the place Portia offers her “high quality of mercy” speech.
Over the previous century, students have debated whether or not “Service provider” must be staged in any respect, notably after the play was deployed in Germany within the Nineteen Forties as Nazi propaganda. Each accountable manufacturing has to cope with its uneasy legacy.
Arbus’s resolution is to emphasise the awfulness of everybody in Venice, not Shylock alone. Mercy? Look elsewhere. On Riccardo Hernandez’s set, a doge’s palace given a Brutalist rework, and underneath Marcus Doshi’s grim lights, the characters demean and betray each other. Even the virtuous Portia shows informal racism and less-casual hypocrisy. Nobody else behaves any higher. Emily Rebholz’s costumes — athleisure, Vans, a hoodie with “Brooklyn” printed on it — verify this ambiance of treachery as neither way back nor far-off.
Casting Thompson complicates the prejudices at work within the play, superimposing Blackness on Shylock’s Jewishness. Black Jews after all exist, however regardless of the interpolation of some traces from a Yom Kippur prayer on the play’s finish, it’s this Shylock’s Blackness and never his Jewishness that Arbus’s manufacturing emphasizes. “By casting a Black man as Shylock in America in 2021, one turns into painfully conscious of the connections between Shakespeare’s Sixteenth-century Venice and our world now,” she mentioned in a information launch.
This pays sure dividends, giving some traces specific resonance, as when Shylock, in his speech to the Venetian court docket, says:
You’ve amongst you a lot a bought slave,
Which, like your asses and your canine and mules,
You employ in abject and in slavish elements
Since you purchased them. Shall I say to you
Allow them to be free! Marry them to your heirs!
Why sweat they underneath burdens? Let their beds
Be made as gentle as yours?
In laying naked Antonio’s prejudices through the first act, Thompson mockingly assumes the cringing tones of a racist caricature, a barbed and devastating alternative that exhibits his anguished self-awareness. He is aware of how the others see him and the way they need him to behave. He refuses. However in exacting revenge on those that understand him as lower than absolutely human, he loses his personal humanity, which is his tragedy.
And but, this doubling appears like displacement — diminishment, maybe — particularly because it sidesteps the thorny questions of the play’s personal attitudes towards Jews. Threats against American Jews have risen precipitously in recent times, as has on-line harassment. The hostage situation at a Texas synagogue final month was a sobering reminder of hatred with a protracted historical past. None of this essentially makes Arbus’s deal with Blackness improper. (And who would deny Thompson any position he needed?) However anti-Blackness and antisemitism aren’t similar. And each proceed. Which is to say: Wasn’t this painful sufficient? Weren’t we conscious already?
The Service provider of Venice
By way of March 6 at Theater for a New Viewers, Brooklyn; tfana.org. Operating time: 2 hours 40 minutes.