Monday, February 14, 2011

The Merchant of Venice: Compelling Production of A Challenging Play

Lily Rabe and Al Pacino

Anyone planning a production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice needs to wrestle with how to portray Shylock, the money-lending Jew who demands payment of a “pound of flesh” when the title character in the play defaults on a loan.

Should the rampant anti-Semitism of the age—not to mention Jew-baiting theatrical precursors to Shakespeare—hold sway?  Or should we view Shylock through more modern and sympathetic eyes?  Both are legitimate interpretations, as the text itself offers enough leeway to allow for either perspective to hold sway.

Whatever choice is made, the thing I ask for as a playgoer is that the portrayal be an honest one.   To give what I consider to be an egregious example, I was deeply offended by the inane and condescending production of Christopher Marlowe’s vicious-tongued The Jew of Malta, directed by David Herskovits a few years back with a twitchy wink-and-nod-we’re-only-joking sensibility that ruined the experience of watching the play.  I get that the 16th century was not particularly kind to Jews.  Please don’t insult my intelligence, and don’t fear so much for my delicate sensibilities that you feel compelled to offer up such a cowardly production.

So I am both relieved and delighted to report that the current Broadway production of The Merchant of Venice is compelling, smart, and thoroughly honest.  Actor Al Pacino and director Daniel Sullivan offer us a Shylock who is both victimizer and victim, in acknowledgment of the truth that being on the receiving end of bigotry does not necessarily mean you are a kind and loving person deep down inside.

Pacino, in a measured performance that embodies the layers of meaning contained within every word he utters, gives us a Shylock who has spent his life being demeaned and scorned by his Christian countrymen and who has survived by his wit and intellect alone.  This Shylock has hardened himself to the cruelties of the world, and that has left precious little room for the softer emotions, including mercy (an important theme of the play) or the ability to show any tenderness toward his daughter Jessica.  This cold-heartedness, however self-protecting its origin, is the cause of his downfall and gives plausibility to his daughter’s abandonment of him and of her Jewish faith. 

Of course, The Merchant of Venice is not only about Shylock, whose story comes to its conclusion well before the end of the play. Playing off the tragedy of Shylock is the tale of Antonio, the merchant of the title, who finds himself before the court of law when he is unable to replay a loan of 3,000 ducats.  It is his pound of flesh that is to be given in forfeit, in accordance to the agreement he accepted when he took out the loan. 

Antonio is another complicated character.  We know he is a virulent anti-Semite, yet he willingly joins into a monetary arrangement with Shylock--and not out of any need of his own, but to provide funds to give to his friend Bassanio so that the latter may woo the lady Portia.  Why would Antonio do that?   Thanks to a strong and convincing performance by Byron Jennings, we see a psychological basis for his actions, for his general air of melancholy, and, later, for his willingness to sacrifice himself.  He is not just a plot device, but a complex human being who earns our sympathy despite his initial bigotry and arrogance.

The characters of Portia (Lily Rabe) and Bassanio (David Harbour) belong less to a Shakespearean tragedy than to one of his romances, but both actors serve their parts well.  Ms. Rabe, in particular, rolls that Elizabethan English off her tongue so well that it seems absolutely natural to her, and she gives full range to both the comic and the serious sides of her character. 

In truth, there is not a weak performance among the cast of 32, who work together as well as any ensemble I can recall seeing.  If I were compelled to single out a few more, Christopher Fitzgerald as Launcelot Gobbo, Heather Lind as Jessica, and Marsha Stephanie Blake at Portia’s lady-in-waiting give splendid performances in these smaller supporting roles.

I also want to hand it to director Daniel Sullivan.  Shakespeare is, after all, Shakespeare.  It takes a lot of work to make it accessible to a modern audience.   At the performance I attended, it was clear there were many there who were drawn by the star power of Mr. Pacino and who were unfamiliar with the play itself.  I heard gasps on more than one occasion as plot elements were revealed (e. g. Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity).  It’s nice to know that the Bard still has the power to astonish. 

I also liked that, despite the seeming all’s-well ending, we can see there will be some troublesome days ahead,  especially for Jessica who has yet to work through her issues with both the father and the faith she has abandoned in a pique of rebellion.  It’s most intriguing that she is given the final moments onstage. 

Finally, a word about the scenic design by Mark Wendland, the costume design by Jess Goldstein, and the incidental music by Dan Moses Schreier.  That word would be “Brilliant.”

Bravo to all who were involved in giving us this splendid production!

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