When “The Merchant of Venice” opens at Shakespeare Theatre Company this week, three names will appear in large print on the program: William Shakespeare, Arin Arbus, and John Douglas Thompson. You know Shakespeare. Less known to D.C. audiences may be the work of Arbus, the show’s Obie Award-winning director, and Thompson, the acclaimed actor who is playing Shylock.
These names have become a holy trinity of classical theater in Brooklyn, where Arbus and Thompson have collaborated on numerous plays at the Theatre for a New Audience, which creates contemporary productions of classical plays to appeal to diverse audiences.
Now Arbus and Thompson are bringing Shakespeare, and Shylock, his most contentious villain, to D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Arbus is aware that “Merchant” is the ultimate hot potato of Shakespeare plays, maligned for its portrayal of Jewish characters which modern audiences find to be profoundly antisemitic. (The last time that “Merchant” had a major D.C. production, the Washington Post ran an op-ed calling for a moratorium on productions of the play.) But Arbus, who spoke to District Fray via Zoom from her sunny New York apartment last month, does not see it that way at all.
“My sympathy is completely with Shylock in this play,” she says, referring to the character of the Jewish moneylender who demands a “pound of flesh” from Antonio, an antisemitic merchant who can’t repay a loan. “That is where my heart is and that is the only real love in the play. I completely understand why certain people don’t want to see this play because it is Shakespeare’s ugliest play. There is so much hate in it and everyone behaves horrendously to each other. But I think that anyone who sees this production will find it heartbreaking the way that Shylock is treated by the Christians.”
In preparing for the play, Arbus and Thompson consulted with several scholars who study Shakespeare, race and religion.
“I feel very strongly that Shakespeare was doing something radical in his time which is that he was writing for a deeply antisemitic audience. He is playing with Jewish stereotypes from the day. He makes the audience complicit in the downfall of a character, then he twists it so the audience is outraged by their own behavior.”
The fact that Thompson is one of the first Black actors to play Shylock opened up space for Arbus to explore “Merchant” in a contemporary context. She did so by setting the play in New York, featuring a diverse cast in modern dress.
“There are a lot of similarities between Shakespeare’s Venice and modern New York in that both are multicultural capitalist economies,” Arbus says. “For me, the play is an indictment of capitalism and the structures that preserve power in the hands of certain groups and exclude other groups. That all felt very familiar and personal and very much of this moment in America.”
Arbus and Thompson first collaborated in 2009 on Theatre for a New Audience’s “Othello,” the very first play that Arbus directed professionally. At that time, Thompson was already an established performer who had worked with a variety of acclaimed directors.
“I remember it was very difficult to convince him to do “Othello” with me,” Arbus says. “We had a lot of meetings about whether or not it would be worth it for him. Then as soon as we got into rehearsal it was just a dream collaboration.”
Because of their long and close relationship, Arbus relishes this chance to bring “Merchant” to life with Thompson. “I have so much respect for him. He is a wonderful leader of a company and an incredible interpreter of Shakespeare and any material.”
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