Before it even begins, “Shylock” raises tantalizing questions. Entering the Perry Street Theater (reopening after nine years with this show), auds are faced with a set that suggests a collision of worlds. We see the stained wood of a study, its massive desk and cluttered shelves rimmed by a heavy curtain that could suffocate the backstage wall. The curtain is partly swagged, however, to reveal there is no wall, but a staircase that ends at a massive photograph of Venice’s Rialto Bridge. Inside is outside. Real furniture flanks pictures of sky. Where are we, exactly? Which story unfolds in a mixed-up limbo like this?
A story, of course, with its own blurred boundaries. British thesp Gareth Armstrong, writer-performer of this one-man show, uses “Shylock” to explore anti-Semitism in both the theater and the world at large. Shylock, he tells us, is more than the vilified moneylender from “The Merchant of Venice.” He’s such a symbol of Jewish people in society that Shakespeare’s play can’t hold him. Like the show’s set, he exists in multiple worlds.
At first Armstrong fills this academic concept with theatrical life. Rather than the title character, he plays Tubal, Shylock’s friend. Shakespeare gave him eight lines, but now Tubal’s the star — a storyteller, an agitator and an actor playing all the “Merchant” roles he loves.
Most importantly, though, Tubal isn’t Shylock. The moneylender and what he represents — from the greedy Jew to the suffering outcast — are an identity anyone can wear. The show asks: If Shylock transforms Tubal, can he transform us? How much are we created by fiction?
These questions feel urgent because Armstrong’s perf invites empathy and awe. His voice alone could drive the show, especially the thunderous authority of its lower register. Physically, he has the same power, exploding across the stage with athletic control. An actor of consummate craft, Armstrong clearly loves his work. His ease invites an audience’s faith.
Unfortunately, he seems to lose faith in his audience. Once “Shylock” has asked its dense, fascinating questions, it retreats from exploring them. Ultimately, thinking is traded for a simple recounting of the “Merchant” plot, as though the crowd wouldn’t know its Shakespeare.
And even the “Merchant” moments devolve. When reciting the famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, Armstrong uses the hooked nose, ginger wig and cackling voice that once made Jewish figures “comical.” There’s a chilling contrast between the sympathetic argument and the grotesque disguise. By show’s end, however, he performs long passages from the courtroom scene like any other actor, offering no challenge to the text.
This provides a virtuoso moment, but eliminates the initial ideas behind “Shylock.” Tubal may be center stage, but he doesn’t have enough to say.