The Merchant of Venice

Al Pacino demands his pound of flesh in Shakespeare's problem comedy.



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  • DOWN BY LAW Pacino, front, must accept Rabe's legal ruling.

DOWN BY LAW Pacino, front, must accept Rabe's legal ruling.

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>0/5

Delacorte Theater

The Merchant of Venice. By William Shakespeare. Dir. Daniel Sullivan. With Al Pacino, Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater. 3hrs. One intermission.

The Winter’s Tale. By William Shakespeare. Dir. Michael Greif. With Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Jessie L. Martin. 3hrs. One intermission. Buy Tickets

Click #2 for a 3-D image (3-D glasses required).

The Merchant of Venice is the product of a culture where anti-Semitism was the norm. True, in its most memorable passages (“Hath not a Jew eyes?” “The quality of mercy is not strained”) Shakespeare seeks to complicate the demonization of Jews with moralizing poesy, but the play ultimately expects us to laugh at a noxiously vindictive Jewish moneylender who loses his daughter and his fortune and is forced to convert to Christianity. That’s supposed to be a happy ending.

By contrast, the gentile heroes of Shakespeare’s play are hypocrites who blithely ignore the Christian injunction to love their neighbors. Antonio (Byron Jennings) spits upon Shylock (Pacino) and abuses him in the street and never regrets it. In the year 2010, we can’t help but sympathize with the wronged minority’s hunger for justice and respect. After nearly two millennia of Western persecution of the Jews—from Emperor Titus to Hitler—it’s impossible to call Shylock’s enemies our friends.

Clearly, Shakespeare dropped the ball. Merchant could have been ranked a humanist masterpiece, if only the Bard had set down an extra speech or two in Act IV’s courtroom scene. Imagine: Antonio, having escaped death by pound-of-flesh extraction, has a spiritual epiphany. He disavows bigotry and begs forgiveness. Shylock, too, sees that his lust for revenge eclipsed his better angel, and takes Antonio’s hand in friendship. Everyone repairs to Portia’s home in Belmont and has a good laugh about it. Shylock forgives his rebellious, eloping daughter, Jessica, and accepts his new goy son-in-law. The comedy is ecumenically complete.

Never mind that the Christians are triumphant and the play would still endorse Jessica’s rejection of Judaism. There’s an inherent all-or-nothing tribalism in the material that insists on having winners and losers. Shakespeare was not interested in world peace; he wanted drama.

So let’s stop talking about the play that doesn’t exist and look at the one that does. Daniel Sullivan’s production follows a post-Holocaust tradition of trying to rehabilitate the work for contemporary audiences by underscoring how inhumanely Shylock is treated (an onstage baptism of Shylock—not in the original script—looks more like waterboarding).

Al Pacino’s central performance, recalling his work in the 2004 movie version of Merchant, gives us a Shylock who is grizzled and faintly addled. Maybe he’s crazy like a fox: Pacino never makes it clear whether the character is near-senile or partly deranged from a lifetime of discrimination. The actor’s trademark growl and syncopated, drawling line readings isolate him from the rest of the ensemble, which makes sense but is a mixed blessing. At times Pacino drags down the pace, at others he endows his material with profound anguish.

Luckily the star is surrounded by a solid cast that has been expertly guided by Sullivan to strong, resonant choices. Byron Jennings’s Waspy Antonio and Hamish Linklater’s foppish Bassanio are flawed creatures, but never hateful or two-dimensional. And Lily Rabe’s brassy, wisecracking Portia may be the one who turns tables on Shylock in the courtroom climax, but she throws in generous amounts of rue and self-doubt to add a sourness to Portia’s judgment. Bill Heck, as Jessica’s suitor Lorenzo, shows a moody side that presages a rocky interfaith marriage ahead.

One can see why the Public Theater put Merchant in rep with The Winter’s Tale: Both are tragicomic studies of empathy and forgiveness (or lack thereof). But whereas Sullivan makes a thorny work compelling, director Michael Greif turns an enchanting, tear-jerking romance into a tedious hash of stiff acting and strained bawdy humor. Ruben Santiago-Hudson is simply miscast as the jealous Sicilian king Leontes, who suspects his pregnant wife, Hermione (Linda Emond), is carrying the child of best friend Polixenes, the king of Bohemia (Martin).

Although Santiago-Hudson is capable of finely shaded portraits of shifty men, his Leontes is weirdly phlegmatic and blank. His change from homicidally jealous tyrant to penitent griever barely registers, and the actor’s vocal work suffers from a wandering British inflection. Better that he had switched roles with Jesse L. Martin, who gives a muscular, vivid Polixenes. Marianne Jean-Baptiste is a vigorous, if overwrought, Paulina, and the usually charming Linklater gets zero laughs with his forced shenanigans as con artist Autolycus.

Although the Public is to be applauded for giving us repertory theater in the summer, the practice has its downside: You see the same actors blaze forth one night, and fizzle out the next.

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