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The Merchant of Venice

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Merchant of Venice
Al Pacino
Photo by Joan Marcus.

An industrial counting house isn’t just the setting for Daniel Sullivan’s new production of The Merchant of Venice, which The Public Theater is presenting in repertory with The Winter's Tale at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, it’s also the overall theme. The black iron gates of Mark Wendland's set, arranged in sprawling concentric circles as if a high-security prison viewed through a fish-eye lens, promotes all the chilly austerity typically associated (rightly or wrongly) with money folk. Our existence, the stage seems to scream from the instant the show begins, is unquestionably an endless battle of “us” versus “them.”

Given the more sweeping and famous (or, if you prefer, infamous) topics that William Shakespeare courts in this show, one of his darkest comedies, that's actually an accurate and appropriate summation. In depicting a world where the everlasting enmity between religions inflected business, legal, and romantic relationships alike, Shakespeare may as well have been describing the time in which we live today. (Though, were he writing today, he may have moved the battleground to the Mideast.) The people who hate for hating’s sake and the people who want revenge for revenge’s sake aren’t ultimately that different. And as long as the right people eventually end up in the black, who cares?

From a strict-constructionist standpoint, Sullivan is on satisfactorily solid ground with this interpretation — which the costumes (by Jess Goldstein) suggest is set at the turn of the 20th century, but feels more like it’s unfolding at the turn of the 21st — but things are nonetheless too easily muddied. This play may be steeped in the politics and prejudices of its time to a degree that makes it difficult to properly assess today, but it needn't be handled with white, santitized gloves the way Sullivan does here, to grandly uneven effect.

This is the same director who, a year ago in the same space, helmed one of the most raucous, colorful, and delightful Twelfth Nights in ages and who, as recently as Time Stands Still last season, has been eliciting from actors performances of juicy subtlety where you may have thought none existed. Yet in the scenes where it matters most, he's settled for painting almost entirely in black and white, which results in something artistically attractive, perhaps, but — at least for its first two hours or so — not particularly deep. His chief misjudgment here is hiring actors who are usually masters of detailed shading, and then not letting them shade.

As the title character, Antonio, Byron Jennings is harshly unsympathetic when dealing with most anyone but his friend Bassanio (Hamish Linklater), and all but provokes the audience’s scorn as though he's back twirling his moustache and snacking on scenery in Is He Dead? on Broadway. Tall and sturdy of both body and voice, Jennings represents the stylishly clad embodiment of imperial disdain, every bit the man who believes he needs listen to no one but himself. So when Bassanio makes a deal with the Jewish moneylender Shylock that puts a pound of Antonio's very best flesh at risk, we seem intended to hope the deal goes south. It does, of course. (It'd be a short play otherwise.)

All this gives Al Pacino the opportunity to jump full whine into Shylock, turning him into the bug underneath the more plentiful Christians’ feet. How could it not? Pacino is dwarfed by Jennings and many of his costars, walks with a slight hunch that could just as easily have been reserved from Richard III, and speaks with the guileless, submissive tones that make it clear he's learned his place. Yet give him an opportunity to exact vengeance on those who’ve oppressed him, and he pounces on it, as if to remedy thousands of years of injustice in just a few speeches. And, in case we miss the point, Sullivan even has Shylock baptized onstage in a silent scene that’s already generated more curious buzz than many Shakespeare in Central Park shows can usually manage across whole runs (unless they star Meryl Streep).

But Sullivan’s “reparations” come across as unduly heavy-handed in a play and production that otherwise fancy themselves as regal larks. Shakespeare's treatment of Shylock is not conventionally PC as we might consider it, but he's a deeply considered lead nonetheless, showing serious affection for his daughter Jessica (Heather Lind) and the right thing — which smooth out his more dastardly aspects. Shylock doesn't need as much help as he receives in becoming a victim, with even an uncomfortably anti-Semitic parade staged to show exactly what the put-upon Shylock is up against in the simmering Venice.

The Merchant of Venice
Lily Rabe
Photo by Joan Marcus.

When the story turns away from its moralizing, however, Sullivan crafts something more like a play than a polemic. He's found a superb Portia in Lily Rabe, who's doing some of her stateliest and most controlled work ever as the thoughtful, ingenious woman caught between her surging yearnings for truth and respect for her absent father. His test for finding her a husband, involving three metal casks and suitors who must forsake women if they choose the wrong one, has weighed on her and conferred in her a sense of justice as deep and dark as Shylock's (if differently oriented). So when Bassanio attempts the challenge and inspires her to take on Antonio’s case, we see exactly how qualities as apparently diverse as justice, love, and racism can intertwine.

The Merchant of Venicea,, then, strives, as most of Shakespeare's plays do, to examine a complex human story from many angles. And with the help of a wide variety of supporting characters — Nerissa (an excellent Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and Gratiano (Jesse L. Martin at his most saucy) as a comic version of Portia and Bassanio’s romance, Jessica and the Christian Lorenzo (Bill Heck) proving how disparate cultures can successfully commingle, and princes (Nyambi Nyambi, Max Wright) and clowns (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) that outline a spiritually confused culture — and the deservedly famous climactic courtroom scene in which the troubles are resolved with unsettling overtones, and you have a play that doesn't make excuses or require apologies.

Unfortunately, almost every time Shylock is onstage, this production is about little else. That makes it more difficult than it should be to see the vaults for the green, and observe the depths of balance Sullivan has tried so hard to inject. But when he lets the actors and story work on their own, he delivers a Merchant of Venice you can truly count on.


The Merchant of Venice
Through August 1
Delacorte Theater in Central Park
Enter Central Park at 81st Street and Central Park West or 70th Street and Fifth Avenue.
Performances begin at 8PM.
Performed in repertory with THE WINTER'S TALE.
Tickets to Shakespeare in the Park are free at: www.shakespeareinthepark.org