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A CurtainUp Review
The Merchant of Venice

The Shakespeare In the Park's Merchant on Broadway

Original Review of the Central Park Production

Lily Rabe, Byron Jennings and Al Pacino
Lily Rabe and Al Pacino facing off in the famous quality of mercy court scene
(Photo: Joan Marcus )

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal'd by the same means, warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, shall we not die?
— Shylock's most famous speech, Act 3, scene 1
Al Pacino
Al Pacino
(Photo: Joan Marcus )
As Les Gutman said when he reviewed the Central Park production of The Merchant of Venice, we can argue about its meaning until the next revival, and we still will have failed to reach any sort of consensus. But there's no arguing that Daniel Sullivan's production has landed smoothly at the Broadhurst Theatre. Most of its key players are on hand to reprise their roles along with well chosen replacements for those unavailable for the current limited run. Al Pacino is the star ticket selling attraction whose entrance is greeted with applause and he remains, as Les put it, a star among smaller consellations, impressively striking a balance between villain and victim. No wonder he's so often referred to as "the great Al Pacino."

Mark Wendland's set, which looked somewhat small to Les with Central Park looming in the background, fits just so within the confines of the Broadhurst stage. Kenneth Posner's lighting and Jess Goldstein's costumes, as well as Dan Moses Schreir's captivating music, make the location establishing movements of those black fences and stairways also evoke the shift in mood between the Venetian ghetto and court scenes and the more playful happenings in Belmont. Taken as a whole, this is a production with a consistently stimulating images and performances that make three hours pass faster than many a 90-minute show.

Lily Rabe
Lily Rabe as Portia, making her entrance in a striking Lady in Red outfit.
(Photo: Joan Marcus )
Leading the standouts among the actors reprising their roles, and is Lily Rabe. She is one of the loveliest and most dynamic Portias I've ever seen — as well as one of the bravest, given that she was back on stage just days after the untimely death of her mother, actress Jill Clayburgh. Rabe's Portia is young, romantic, willful, as well as the cunning surprise witness who defeats and humiliates Shylock. Ultimately, without saying a word, we see her devastated by the realization that she has indeed strained "the quality of mercy.". There are many other such wordless touches to deepen the characterization and, as is typical of this play, set off different reactions.

I found the almost Pinteresque pause when Byron Jenning's Antonio is proffered Shylock's hand potent evidence of his deep-seated anti-Semitism. Perhaps the most powerful wordless scene is when Shylock' is forcibly baptized puts on his skullcap again only to be deserted by his fellow Jews, is all the more gut wrenching for the more restrained emotions preceding it.

The most significant cast change is in the role of Portia's lover, Bassanio. David Harbour brings warmth, humor and a romantic presence to the role. His relationship with Antonio suggests just a whiff of homoeroticsm but not enough to make his passion for Portia less convincing. To the part of Launcelot Gobbo, Christopher Fitzgerald who was doing a star turn in Williamstown Theatre's all-male A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to the Forum during Merchant's summer run, brings the needed pizazz to this small but pivotal role. On the other hand, Seth Numrich 's Lorenzo hardly seems worth the guilt about deserting her father and her religion that is already beginning to haunt Jessica at the end of the play — another of those potent wordless images that make this production so satisfying. (For a review which includes some intriguing commentary on Shylock's as well as his daughter's last scene which is most often used to take a new look at the aftermath of the unmerciful outcome of Sherlock's pound of flesh lawsuit. you may want to check out the production notes of a particularly interesting version put on by Shakespeare & Co. ).

After my last encounter with The Merchant. . . in the British Propeller Company's all-male production in which Shakespeare's Venice was turned into a vast jailhouse, Daniel Sullivan's more straightfoward vision is almost restful and yet memorably moving. The fact that this play lends itself to so many interpretations and has attracted so many great Shylocks and Portias explains why it keeps being done and why it will continue to exhilarate and infuriate.

New York Production Notes
The Merchant of Venice
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Cast members reprising their roles: Al Pacino (Shylock), Lily Rabe (Portia), Byron Jennings (Antonio), Jesse L. Martin (Gratiano), Gerry Bamman (Duke of Venice), Heather Lind (Jessica), Matthew Rauch (Solanio), and Richard Topol (Tubal)
New cast members: Marsha Stephanie Blake (Nerissa), Christopher Fitzgerald (Launcelot Gobbo), David Harbour (Bassanio), Peter Francis James (Salerio), Isaiah Johnson (Prince of Morocco), Charles Kimbrough (Prince of Arragon), and Seth Numrich (Lorenzo).
Other Cast members: Glenn Fleshler (Antonio's man/Ensemble), Herb Foster (Balthasar), Baylen Thomas (Antonio's Man/Ensemble).Curt Hostetter (Stephano/Ensemble)
Other Ensemble Players: Happy Anderson, Liza J. Bennett, Glenn Fleshler, Luke Forbes, Herb Foster, Jade Hawk, Bethany Heinrich, Tia James, Kelsey Kurz, Brian Keith Macdonald, Dorien Makhloghi
Set Design: Mark Wendland
Costume Design: Jess Goldstein
Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner
Sound Design: Acme Sound Partners
Composer: Dan Moses Schreier
Fight Director: Thomas Schall
Choreographer: Mimi Lieber
Stage Manager: Stephen M. Kaus
Running Time: 3 hours, with 1 intermission
Broadhurst Theatre 235 W. 44th Street
from 10/19/10; opening 11/09/10; closing 1/09/11-- the closing will be temporary-- with another brief run from 2/01/11 to 2/20/11.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at November 11tg Press Performance

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The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest...

—Portia, Act IV, scene 1
We can argue from now until the next revival without reaching aconsensus as to what Shakespeare had in mind when he created Shylock. Nor are directors likely to agree on one best way to interpret this schizophrenic play. But there's no argument about how the Central Park production has transferred to Broadway. <:BR>
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).
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