The Merchant of Venice gets a blunt, pox-on-both-your-houses reading in the invigorating new production now being performed under the stars at the Delacorte Theater, part of the 2010 edition of the Public Theater’s well-loved Shakespeare in the Park programming. Good choice, the hell-with-all-of-’em approach: William Shakespeare’s most vexing so-called comedy has always been a Rorschach test of a masterwork, shaped as much by the cultural moment in which it’s performed as by the classic text. And is there a better time or place to offer a coolly in-your-face interpretation than on warm summer nights in 21st-century melting-pot New York City — especially with hotly in-your-face Al Pacino in the famously unsettling role of Shylock?
This Shylock has little in common with the same Jewish moneylender the star played six years ago in Michael Radford’s more velvet-draped movie version of the same play. Now, in director Daniel Sullivan’s crisp production, Shylock is a businessman, a practical man and an energetic member of his community, however disdained that community is by haughty Christian noblemen like the Venetian merchant Antonio (Byron Jennings). Antonio nevertheless needs the moneylender’s services to help his friend Bassanio (Hamish Linklater) finance the wooing of the heiress Portia (Lily Rabe).
Scenic designer Mark Wendland girdles the stage with a movable iron railing that sometimes suggests a ghetto, other times a bank or a zoo or a jail; costume designer Jess Goldstein blurs the time period in his wardrobe choices, deftly stripping the audience of the comfort of keeping the story at arm’s length by treating it like a 16th-century curiosity in a keepsake box. Everyone is seen for the timeless, selfish, hypocritical schemer he or she is; each feels the sting of rue. And the players tease out human failings with subtlety: Rabe’s Portia is a snappy, self-possessed go-getter; Jennings’ Antonio oozes casual snobbery like a guy at a restricted golf club; and Linklater’s Bassanio is, ultimately, a moral weakling. Needless to say, Pacino moves fluidly through his tortured character’s many moods.
This is the first production in ages that got me asking new questions of a familiar script, including: Why does Portia put her suitors through such hoops? Why do she and her lady-in-waiting Nerissa (the excellent Marianne Jean-Baptiste) torment their husbands about allegedly missing jewelry? Why is Shylock so vengeful about a pound of flesh, and why in turn is he punished so profoundly with a cruel scene of forced religious conversion?
Also for the first time in ages, Shakespeare in the Park is structured in a repertory format: The Merchant of Venice alternates throughout its summer run with Shakespeare’s The Winter?s Tale, and the core of the company, including Modern Family‘s Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Law & Order‘s Jesse L. Martin, perform in both plays. (Pacino and Rabe are exclusive to Merchant, which will have performances through Aug. 1.) I’m writing separately about The Winter’s Tale. But I leap here to add that the opportunity to see fine, agile actors morph from one Shakespearean role to another is thrilling — more joy piled on top of the good fortune of watching Al Pacino curse the heavens while a full orange moon hangs in the Central Park night sky as if a perfectionist prop master placed it there. A-