Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 16, 2010
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Scenic design by Mark Wendland. Costume design by Jess Goldstein. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by Acme Sound Partners. Hair & wig design by Charles LaPointe. Music composed by Dan Moses Schreier. Fight Director Thomas Schall. Choreographer Mimi Lieber. Cast: Al Pacino, with Lily Rabe, David Harbour, Byron Jennings, Jesse L. Martin, Gerry Bamman, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Christopher Fitzgerald, Peter Francis James, Isaiah Johnson, Charles Kimbrough, Heather Lind, Seth Numrich, Matthew Rauch, Richard Topol, Happy Anderson, Liza J. Bennett, Glenn Fleshler, Luke Forbes, Herb Foster, Bryce Gill, Thomas Michael Hammond, Jade Hawk, Kelsey Kurz, Brian Keith MacDonald, Dorien Makhloghi, Kim Martin-Cotton, Baylen Thomas.
For a play that’s been haunted for over 400 years by its own debatable attitudes toward race and religion, this treatment of its underlying questions is a stunning reversal — and not one that, ultimately, does the work much good. Not that that matters so much with this production, which is buoyed by two key performances from Al Pacino (who’s serving the needs of the box office) and Lily Rabe (who’s serving the needs of the play), and thus would seem headed for financial success under any circumstances. But is money everything? And is it possible to go so far in trying to obtain wealth and fortune that you sacrifice your humanity in their pursuit? These are the only place where William Shakespeare’s play and this production truly intersect.
The story turns on the appropriateness of a deal between Jewish moneylender Shylock (Pacino) and the title character, Antonio (Byron Jennings), for a large amount of money to be repaid within a certain period of time. Antonio is making the bond on behalf of his friend, Bassanio (David Harbour), who hopes to use it to woo and win the far-off Portia (Rabe), and is convinced that nothing could come between him and the repayment. This is a good thing, too, as Shylock demands that default will result in the loss of a pound of Antonio’s flesh closest to his heart. But when Antonio’s ships don’t come into port as planned... well, that would be a problem, wouldn’t it?
At least these days, both the setup and the payoff rely on uncomfortable words and even uglier stereotypes that brand Shylock as violent and money-hungry — nearly to the point where he’s just as monstrous and emotionally deformed as Richard III. Always dogging the play is the issue of what Shakespeare meant and how he meant it, and the degree to which his portrayal of Shylock is indicative of the anti-Semitism of the Jacobean era. Anyone approaching the play must deal with that on some level, as it so informs the text that even if it’s to be downplayed it can’t be ignored entirely.
Sullivan’s idea, to emphasize the hatred so much that the polarity is effectively reversed, may be politically correct but it’s not theatrically satisfying. By means of a late-first-half parade of grotesques, the addition of one full scene (literalizing Shylock’s final, debilitating fate) and the shredding of another scene’s subtext in the second half, and Pacino’s performance, Sullivan cuts off as many avenues as he can toward alternate interpretations. He leaves no doubt that the Christians are the villains, and that Shylock, eventually crumpled into functional nonexistence, must be seen and pitied as the victim of a lifetime of senseless savagery.
Expert as Pacino may be in portraying all this, stripping away the play’s subtlety and shading doesn’t make it deeper or more significant. Instead, it makes watching it a disengaging affair: You need the interplay of beliefs, the tapestry of behavior from all sides that’s so constantly shifting it’s impossible to discern “good” from “bad,” to see how prejudices develop, what fuels them, and why they’re destructive to an ordered society. Sullivan’s slanting the story in a different direction doesn’t reveal more — it just obfuscates in a different way. (This also sabotages a subplot about Shylock’s daughter Jessica and her beau Lorenzo, played by Heather Lind and Seth Numrich.)
When this production comes to life, it’s primarily around the edges. Bassanio’s courting of Portia, and by extension his servant Gratiano (Jesse L. Martin) pursuing Portia’s maid, Nerissa (Marsha Stephanie Blake), has rarely seemed as full and funny — their promises made and broken are the fuel by which the most captivating drama is unleashed. Harbour in particular is sturdy and magnetic, commanding a glowing and much-welcome traditional sense of self as a character who’s so reliant on others. Martin and Blake are sparkling presences in their comic-oriented roles, as are Christopher Fitzgerald as Shylock’s servant, and Isaiah Johnson and Charles Kimbrough as two of Portia’s other would-be suitors. Peter Francis James and Matthew Rauch cut more serious (but still dynamic) figures as two of Antonio’s attendants.
It’s Rabe, however, who almost exclusively provides the show’s soul. From her drawn-face deadpan when facing off against her potential husbands to the deep-running passion she develops for Bassanio to the aggressiveness she displays when defending Antonio and revealing Bassanio’s and Gratiano’s own squishy ethics, she’s amazingly malleable and courageous. Her Portia is a woman who knows what she wants — even when she doesn’t know she knows — and will do anything to get it, and the confidence she radiates proves a powerful guiding force among a sea of people who are happy to forgo it in search of easy answers. Even her clothes are constructed from rich reds, roses, and golds, in gleaming defiance of the stark bleakness surrounding her.
This contrast has only blossomed since this production premiered in Central Park this past summer, where it had a few different actors and a more verdant backdrop that allowed for greater variance in both visuals and psychology. Portia and Rabe are now even more isolated bastions of color in a world dedicated to black and white — the energizing forces giving lie to the notion that the world is nothing but laughably manageable simplicity, questions with only easy answers. Holding court at the core of the action, they ensure that this Merchant of Venice is not an entirely one-dimensional affair. They are, however, about the only things that do.