Friday, November 19, 2010

Gated Community

Rabe, Pacino and Jennings in Venice
(photo by Joan Marcus)

The Merchant of Venice
A play by William Shakespeare

Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Starring Al Pacino, Lily Rabe, Byron Jennings, Jesse L. Martin, Christopher Fitzgerald, David Harbour, Peter Francis James, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Heather Lind

Performances through January 9, 2011
Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street

Despite the efforts of directors and actors, there’s no denying that Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is a comedy, with Shylock as its standard-issue villain. Daniel Sullivan’s production starts out understanding this, and for the first half, Al Pacino gleefully plays the Jewish moneylender as the monster he is, a money-loving usurer which Shakespeare’s own audiences would have found familiar in their bigoted view.

Pacino’s thinly-disguised caricature has many details that add up to a fully-realized characterization: the ill-timed laughs of disgust; the slouched walk and darting eyes; the accent on the wrong words that give away Shylock’s obvious intent. Pacino plays Shylock as the butt of Shakespeare’s elaborate prank—but Shakespeare being Shakespeare, there are also considerable insights into his flawed humanity.

That’s why it’s unfortunate when, after Pacino delivers the powerful “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech to end the first act, Sullivan loses his nerve and uses the play’s second half to transform Shylock into a tragic hero, complete with an added (and ludicrous) pantomime of the Jew’s forced conversion: after he’s thrice dunked in a pool of water, he defiantly puts his yarmulke on his head and storms off-stage—to the audience’s wildly cheering delight, of course. From which Folio did Sullivan unearth this scene?

Visually, Sullivan’s production glitters. Mark Wendland’s striking set comprises a series of iron-wrought gates that stand as an obvious barrier against the Jewish population, along with an oversized abacus (this is a mercantile market, of course), although nothing specifically suggests Venice. Then there’s Kenneth Posner’s artfully subtle lighting, which gives added weight to the more dramatic scenes. The deliberate anachronisms—the stock ticker, the victrola, the camera—are more amusing than annoying.

Lily Rabe’s modern, feminist Portia makes for an audience-pleasing characterization (“you go, girl!”), but it’s strange that she’s more arresting in her manly disguise than in her wooing scenes with various suitors. Heather Lind’s Jessica—Shylock’s daughter, who elopes with the Christian Lorenzo to her father’s eternal regret—comes across as a goofy teenager, which is permissible in this context. Jesse L. Martin is an exuberant Gratiano, Byron Jennings a stately Antonio, and David Harbour a sympathetic Bassanio.

Overall, while it avoids dealing with the inherent contradictions in Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Sullivan’s Merchant of Venice manages to remain entertaining, which is more than can be said for other productions.

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