He has been played for laughs and played for chills, but the soon-to-be homeless Shylock who has taken up residence in Central Park in the Public Theater’s new production of “The Merchant of Venice,” directed by Daniel Sullivan, is played purely for pity. That it is Al Pacino, of all actors, who fails to give the Jewish moneylender a menacing edge, is surprising beyond measure. That this enchanting and thought-provoking production succeeds so well without a particularly convincing Shylock at its core demonstrates what an endlessly fascinating play “Merchant” is, and how much it continues to speak to us.
“Merchant” has always been a difficult play to categorize. While many scholars consider it to be a romantic comedy, Shylock introduces an unnerving, frightening and ultimately tragic element that sends the play spinning off in new directions. In Sullivan’s production, the romantic and comic aspects of “Merchant” come to the fore, as they often do in Shakespearean plays performed outdoors.
Set at the turn of the 20th century, Sullivan’s “Merchant” takes place in a late-Victorian counting house, with circular iron fences, a large abacus and a three-story tower with a winding staircase. Clad in pinstriped suits with vests and watch chains, the merchants of Venice inhabit a world as far removed from Shylock in his black gabardine, as an investment banker today differs from a street peddler on Wall Street. But by the end, these privileged men of Venice will have to confront how similar they are to Shylock in their duplicity and double-dealing.
Among Sullivan’s most inspired ideas is to have a significant age difference between Antonio (Byron Jennings) and Bassanio (Hamish Linklater). Jennings plays Antonio as a silver-haired, middle-aged cosmopolitan, while Linklater plays Bassanio as a 30-something creative type with rumpled hair, one who is not yet schooled in the ways of the world. While Sullivan does not make very much of the sexual tension between the two, Antonio seems to be more of a mentor or father figure to Bassanio than a peer, which makes the prospect of Bassanio’s sacrifice of his life for Antonio especially poignant.
Jennings and Linklater are accompanied by an equally strong cast, with Lily Rabe a standout as a queenly and passionate Portia, clad at one point in a stunning red dress and feathered hat. Jesse L. Martin is an expansive and quite sympathetic Gratiano, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste is an amusingly coquettish Nerissa; both Martin and Jean-Baptiste are African Americans, which makes for an interesting contrast between the two couples when Bassanio woos Portia and Gratiano pursues Nerissa.
Also quite successful are the casket scenes, with Nyambi Nyami playing a hilariously egotistical Prince of Morocco and Max Wright an elderly and almost deaf Prince of Arragon. Bill Heck as Lorenzo makes a worthy suitor for Heather Lind as a fetching and winsome Jessica. Jesse Tyler Feruson, an appealing and comical Launcelot Gobbo, does not have enough stage time since the scene with his blind father has been inexplicably cut.
It is thus disconcerting that the production’s energy flags only in the scenes when Pacino appears on stage. Pacino leans over and bends his knees, so that he is physically shorter than anyone else on stage. His Shylock is wounded and bitter, but never particularly malevolent. This is odd, given Pacino’s trademark rising inflection that makes the end of every sentence sound like a sarcasm-tinged challenge and threat. Even in the trial scene, as he whets the edge of his knife to cut out the pound of flesh from Antonio, Pacino seems to take little glee in preparing to take his revenge on the hypocritically unmerciful Christians.
While Pacino’s use of his voice has changed somewhat over the years to include much more shouting, he remains one of our most subtle and quicksilver actors, with an ability to alter his mood in an instant. It is this quality that one keenly misses in watching his Shylock, who seems simply defeated from the beginning. Even his big “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech is not particularly underlined in any way.
Pacino’s performance in the play is thus quite different from his performance in Michael Radford’s 2004 film version, which, while also quite restrained, did manage to convey Shylock’s power to pull down the entire social order if the law were not upheld. Pacino reportedly asked to play Shylock in the Park production; the film version, as is typical of film adaptations of Shakespeare, contains only about a third of the lines in the play. But he does little to make the role his own in the new stage version.
Instead of its concern with Jewishness, this production’s strongest suit is its visual punch: the masks and puppets used in the scene when Jessica runs off with Lorenzo, the Victrola that plays music while the characters serenade each other, the ingenious set that emphasizes Shylock’s outsiderness by putting moveable cages around all the actors, and the wonderfully romantic setting with the moon — the real moon — shining overhead.
At the end, Sullivan has Shylock being forcibly baptized — I have never seen this in a production of the play — and then Jessica comes out in a white dress and cavorts in the same little round pool. She then sits by the edge and reads the deed that will transfer all her father’s wealth to her when she dies, and she lets the document simply fall into the water. This leaves marvelously open-ended the question of her father’s complex legacy.
Shakespeare is simply meant to be performed outdoors. I regret to have missed the performance a few weeks ago when it actually started to rain during Portia’s “Quality of mercy” speech, and Rabe reportedly held out her hands and felt the soft rain on her arms as she talked about the mercy falling as the “gentle rain from heaven.” There is talk — just rumors, so far — of transferring this production to Broadway, just as “The Tempest,” starring Patrick Stewart, transferred to Broadway in 1995. (“On the Town” transferred in 1997.) But that production lost a lot in the translation to the indoor space, and this one might too. See it in the park if you can.
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“The Merchant of Venice” runs through Aug. 1 at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. It is performed in repertory with “The Winter’s Tale.” Free tickets are distributed beginning at 1 p.m. at the Delacorte box office on the day of the performance. Some tickets are also given out in a daily online lottery. For more information, visit www.shakespeareinthepark.org.
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