A CurtainUp Review
The Merchant of Venice
Original Review By Les Gutman
There are, thus, any number of ways a director justifiably might choose to present this story, all supported by the complexities of Shakespeare's insight into human nature: as a window into the anti-Semitism of Shylock's Venice, or of Shakespeare's England; as a romantic comedy with dark undertones, or a tragedy leavened with humor; as a tale of Shylock as a villain, a devil, oppressed or victimized. Daniel Sullivan has chosen to give us a bit of each. We can applaud the production for its balance, perhaps, though audiences always seem to appreciate a strong point of view.
There is little likelihood that it will come as news to most readers that this summer's star vehicle in the park features the great Al Pacino, alongside a constellation of smaller stars. All of this power, however, has not tempted Mr. Sullivan to craft a production that detonates the potential fireworks at hand. Instead, he pulls back, while methodically negotiating and shaping the text. Again, admirable perhaps, but not a crowd pleaser.
Mark Wendland's set immediately takes us out of any idea that we are in the Venice of the Renaisaance, or any other period for that matter. Its most notable feature is a stockpile of black metal fences that are moved about to shape the playing areas. Yet while all of this iron work may cause us to recall that the word "ghetto" refers to the foundry that was the most prominent feature of the Venetian island where Jews were forced to live beginning in the early Sixteenth Century, the overall impression is of late Nineteenth Century London or New York. This mise-en-scène is corroborated (down to the Eastern European Jewish garb) by Jess Goldstein's costumes -- at least until the final acts when we are introduced to a quite diffferent sense of how one dresses in a courtroom.
Pacino provides an emotionally honest portrayal of Shylock, much in keeping with Sullivan's prevailing moderation; he is not the monster he might be, nor is he over-sympathetically drawn. Where one might expect large moments of scenery-chewing from Pacino, we get contemplative ones. The entire production, in fact, feels quite small in the broad open space of the Delacorte, and one would be hard-pressed to find anything particularly offensive beyond the broad outlines of its characterization of the Jews or anyone else. It also avoids tugging too forcefully on our emotions, at least until its final scene of the defeated Shylock, one of a number of well-considered touches.
Byron Jennings's Antonio, who seems quite anxious for reasons that are not well-explored, is far too much of a gentleman to reveal fully the notion he's a rabid anti-Semite that might explain Shylock's actions. Similarly, Jesse Tyler Ferguson's Gobbo, a role that can be utilized to fuel hatred, never reaches much more than a simmer. Lily Rabe impresses with a strong portrayal of a very patrician Portia; the remainder of the cast is uniformly strong, though many of the play's usually significant moments unexpectedly pass without much of a dent.
One thing to be grateful for in this production is Daniel Sullivan's unwillingness to take The Public Theater's Artistic Director Oskar Eustis too literally in his stated desire to present Merchant because he wanted to do a play about financial markets. While we could have ended up with a play drawing a direct connection to Goldman Sachs, et al., what we got is a play that not only does not accentuate some of its more inflammatory aspects, but that also resists the urge to draw contemporary parallels too sharply. While one might be disappointed by the absence of heat in this staging, we are left with a play that asks us calmly to examine "the quality of mercy." And that seems right on target.
Les Gutman reviewed the production on June 25th at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park where it played from June 30, 2010 to August 1st with the following cast: Gerry Bamman (Duke of Venice), Francois Battiste (Salerio), Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Launcelot Gobbo), Bill Heck (Lorenzo), Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Nerissa), Byron Jennings (Antonio), Heather Lind (Jessica), Hamish Linklater (Bassanio), Jesse L. Martin (Gratiano), Nyambi Nyambi (Prince of Morocco), Al Pacino (Shylock), Lily Rabe (Portia), Matthew Rauch (Solanio), Richard Topol (Tubal) and Max Wright (Prince of Arragon), and Happy Anderson, Liza J. Bennett, Tyler Caffall, Cary Donaldson, Luke Forbes, Bryce Gill, Shalita Grant, Jade Hawk, Tia James, Kelsey Kurz, Brian MacDonald, Doren Makhloghi and Joe Short (Ensemble).