‘The Little Things’ actress breaks down ‘The Merchant of Venice’ at Shakespeare Theatre

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'The Merchant of Venice' at Shakespeare Theatre (Part 1)

Isabel Arraiza starred across Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto in “The Little Things.” Now, she stars in “The Merchant of Venice” at Shakespeare Theatre through April 24.

Arraiza told WTOP the play is “a reminder of why live theater is so important.”

William Shakespeare’s 16th-century story follows Antonio, a Venetian merchant who takes out a large loan from a Jewish moneylender, the enigmatic Shylock, so he can woo the heiress Portia.

“If Antonio does not fulfill the contract in three months, Shylock will be able to have a pound of his flesh,” Arraiza said. And he doesn’t.

The villainous role of Shylock is played by Tony Award nominee John Douglas Thompson, best known from Broadway’s “Jitney” and HBO’s “Mare of Easttown.”

He’s “been lauded by critics as one of the best Shakespearean actors of the 21st century,” Arraiza said. “It’s just an honor and a masterclass, in both his performance and as a leader of the group. He’s one of the most generous people I’ve ever met in my life. It’s been a true joy.”

As for her own role, “Portia is one of those female characters in Shakespeare’s canon that is so witty, so rich, so complicated,” Arraiza said. “This character has close to the same amount of lines as Hamlet, so it’s one of those Shakespearean leading roles that every person wants to play. In this version, we decided to do an exploration of Portia that is quite unconventional.”

While Portia is “most always played as this heroic, virtuous, bright, young woman,” Arraiza said, “in our version there’s not a happy ending. I think that’s a much more compelling way of telling the story. Instead of having this leading lady who is a hero … it’s a coming of age of this woman who realizes the world can be a very cruel, scary place.”

The tragic ending hammers home the show’s social themes.

“We explore antisemitism, racism, homophobia and misogyny,” Arraiza said. “All of these characters are somehow victims of the system, and, because of that, perpetuate violence. … It’s the explanation of who the system is for, who does it benefit, how do we bend the law, how do we end up in this chaos in our real day and age? I find that to be very compelling.”

Director Arin Arbus works with scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez to add visual heft ot the production, which is set in the near future. “This is set in 2025, 2027. It’s our world, and at the same time there are very specific rules to this world. … It’s set in this beautiful, brutalist architecture, almost this temple-like stage.”

Arraiza loves honing her acting chops on stage in between film roles.

“Being on stage makes me feel like an artist,” Arraiza said. “Not that I don’t like camera work — I love both — but they’re just very different venues and a very different way of sharing a story.”

In 2018, she starred across Jason Sudeikis in the thriller “Driven.”

“He’s so nice, so generous,” Arraiza said. “We actually worked on that before ‘Ted Lasso.’ He always had a wonderful career, but it’s taken off in a way that is so impressive. … It was my first film, I had no idea what I was doing, I didn’t even know what a ‘mark’ was, the sticker they put on the floor. … He had my back: ‘Hey, you’re supposed to hit your target.'”

That same year, she joined Jim Gaffigan in the thriller “American Dreamer.”

“No one makes me laugh like Jim does, both when I see his comedy specials but also in real life,” Arraiza said. “What was so fascinating was that he could crack jokes nonstop and then they’d say, ‘action,’ and he could turn that sociopath thing on to play this very scary character and just be so good at it. … Jim was just right there, turn on a dime.”

In 2021, she starred in the thriller “The Little Things” with Washington, Malek and Leto.

“It was surreal,” Arraiza said. “It was my first big studio film. Rami couldn’t have been nicer. We had great chemistry on- and off-camera, another example of extreme generosity. Made me feel so comfortable. Denzel has a presence bigger than life, another example of a masterclass. … I never met Jared, but he gave an incredible performance. So terrifying.”

Next, she’ll join Josh Brolin in the Amazon Prime series “Outer Range,” premiering April 15.

“Josh, he’s the best,” Arraiza said. “I guess if I had to define it, it’s a western metaphysical thriller drama starring Josh Brolin, Lili Taylor, Imogen Poots, Noah Reid, Tom Pelphrey, it’s just like a phenomenal, star-studded show.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'The Merchant of Venice' at Shakespeare Theatre (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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