Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Merchant of Venice

Every now and then I see a performance so real that I know I shall never see another that could even come close. Al Pacino’s incarnation as Shylock in director Daniel Sullivan’s full-bodied staging of The Merchant of Venice is mesmerizing. I can’t imagine anyone else so totally transforming himself into the challenging character of Shakespeare’s unappealing Jewish moneylender. And making him as human as anyone sitting in the audience at the Delacorte Theater.

Pacino sails past the pitfalls of portraying Shylock -- too pathetic or too baffoonish. His “Hath not a Jew eyes . . .” speech achieves the sarcasm and avoids self-pity. As his character unfolds, we see the roots that produce a man willing to claim his pound of flesh, collateral for a loan he has given. Every second Pacino is onstage Shylock is enfleshed. (Now I’ll have to look for Michael Radford's 2004 screen adaptation of Merchant in which Pacino also played Shylock.)

I had only seen this play once before and that was at least three decades ago at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. I didn’t like it then, and actually still don’t. Except in a few places it’s not all that funny -- certainly not like Midsummer and As You Like It -- which is why its original description as a “comicall history” seems more appropriate.

I also didn’t care much about the lovers, Lily Rabe (in photo with Pacino) as Portia and Hamish Linklater as Bassanio and Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Narissa and Jesse L. Martin as Gratiano. (I did enjoy the women’s cross-dressing deceit in the courtroom scene.) But this production is so alive, and so well acted across the board, it will still be one of my iconic Shakespeare in the Park experiences.

I hope to have another Monday night when I return to the Delacorte for The Winter's Tale, which runs in repertory with Merchant through Aug. 1. Although Pacino is only in Merchant, most of the actors appear in for both productions. It is the first time the Public Theater, producer of Shakespeare in the Park, has offered such an arrangement since 1970.

The buzz is that Merchant might transfer to Broadway, but I’ve heard that before with other high-quality Delacorte productions, so you might be waiting in vain if you’re hoping to catch it later. Better to bite the bullet now and wait for the free tickets, given out at 1 p.m. (two per person), or enter the Public's online ticketing lottery at

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