F. Murray Abraham in The Merchant of Venice, courtesy of Theatre for a New Audience.

Theater-goers and makers have long wrestled with Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Depending on who’s doing the interpreting, Shylock is either cruel and vengeful or justice-seeking and heroic.

Even more confounding—theater companies tend to avoid it altogether—is The Jew of Malta, a play by Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe’s protagonist Barabas is so relentlessly blood-thirsty that it’s near impossible to see him as anything but the product of a virulently anti-Semitic imagination.

Enter New York’s Theatre for a New Audience. Artistic director Jeffrey Horowitz has chosen to stage these two provocative plays, along with a third—a particularly dark adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. F. Murray Abraham plays the lead in both Merchant and Malta. It’s a bold undertaking, to say the least.

So why these plays? And why now? As the productions get underway, arts reporter Eric Molinsky puts these questions to Jeffrey Horowitz, F. Murray Abraham, and Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro.

Clockwise from top left, Shylocks through the ages: Drawing from 19th century edition of Shakespeare’s Pictures; Jacob Adler in 1903; Dustin Hoffman in 1989; Al Pacino in 2004; Peter O’Toole in 1960; and Zero Mostel in 1977.