Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

The Merchant of Venice
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Also see Susan's review of Catch Me If You Can

John Douglas Thompson
Photo by Henry Grossman
The Merchant of Venice has long been a problematic play in William Shakespeare's canon with its emphasis on the Jewish heritage of Shylock, a moneylender who infamously seeks "a pound of flesh" as collateral for a loan. Director Arin Arbus has created a nuanced examination of the many forms of societal hatred in her modern-dress production for Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, working with a beautifully diverse and skilled cast.

Riccardo Hernandez provides a monumental yet austere scenic design for the Michael R. Klein Theatre at the Lansburgh–blank, brutal concrete walls, broad stairways, and easy-to-miss entrance and exit doors upstage–all the better to focus on the anger, fear, and unearned sense of superiority the Christian characters show toward Shylock (a magisterial performance by John Douglas Thompson, at times charming at others wounded) and the moneylender's attempt to strike back.

Officially, The Merchant of Venice is considered one of Shakespeare's comedies because the lovers all get married and no one dies, but the characters who talk the most about the need for mercy and forbearance tend not to practice it. Only Antonio (Alfredo Narciso), the merchant of the title, understands the nobility of sacrifice: when his beloved friend Bassanio (Sanjit De Silva) asks him for money to woo wealthy Portia (Isabel Arraiza), he agrees to risk his life and, later, to make good on his deal with Shylock.

In contrast, this production depicts Portia as driven, controlling and manipulative. Bassanio is selfish and shortsighted, while his friend Gratiano (Haynes Thigpen) is a blowhard who bluffs his way through life. Lorenzo (David Lee Huynh) claims to love Shylock's daughter Jessica (Danaya Esperanza) when she flees her father's house with stolen gold and jewels, but (based on the final scene) her happiness doesn't last.

Arbus has worked with her cast to create indelible portraits, including capable Nerissa (Shirine Babb), now Portia's business manager rather than her maid; Portia's hilariously pompous steward Balthazar (Jeff Biehl); and Lancelet Gobbo (Nate Miller), a philosophical servant.

Emily Rebholz has designed character-delineating costumes, from Shylock's somber suit (with a small prayer shawl over his shirt and an unobtrusive yarmulke on his head) to the overage-frat-boy looks for Bassanio's friends and, in one scene, exercise wear for Portia. Justin Ellington has created a percussive sound design and original music, which accompanies and enhances the growing levels of tension onstage.

Shakespeare Theatre co-produced The Merchant of Venice with Theatre for a New Audience, which presented it earlier in New York City.

Shakespeare Theatre Company's The Merchant of Venice runs through April 24, 2022, in the Michael R. Klein Theatre at the Lansburgh, 450 Seventh St. NW, Washington DC. For tickets and information, please call 202-547-1122 or 877-487-8849 or visit

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Arin Arbus
A co-production with Theatre for a New Audience

Portia: Isabel Arraiza
Prince of Arragon: Varin Ayala
Nerissa: Shirine Babb
Balthazar: Jeff Biehl
Bassanio: Sanjit De Silva
Jessica: Danaya Esperanza
Solanio: Yonatan Gebeyehu
Prince of Morocco/Duke/Tubal: Maurice Jones
Lancelet Gobbo: Nate Miller
Antonio: Alfredo Narciso
Gratiano: Haynes Thigpen
Shylock: John Douglas Thompson
Salerio: Graham Winton