Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Cage Match

January 03, 2011

Lily Rabe, Byron Jennings and Al Pacino Photo: Joan Marcus/Public Theater 2010

While I’m on the topic of great things I saw in New York, I should mention The Public Theater’s production of The Merchant of Venice now on Broadway at The Broadhurst Theater. Outside of the throngs trying to catch sight of the latest injury at those Spider-Man previews, Shakespeare was easily one of the hottest tickets in New York this Holiday due to great reviews and a marquee name in Al Pacino who applies his formidable skills to Shylock. The accolades for everyone involved are well deserved. Had I not seen this on Jan 1, 2011, it would have easily been on the OWA 2010 best of theater list for what is truly a fresh and thoughtful approach to the most thorny of plays. (Be warned: the following discusses some of the details of this production's climax, so if you don't want to know, you may want to stop here.)

Most of the credit must be given to director Daniel Sullivan who has put the play in a new context not by rethinking Shylock in any way, but by rethinking Portia. This is a Merchant that plays its antisemitism as it lays. But the kicker is how Portia, becomes an equal center of focus here. The comedy inherent in the script is still there, but is toned down and Bassanio, Portia’s love, is forced to carry more of the yucks than she is for once. All of this initially seems subtle until the concluding scene where the genius of the staging reveals itself. Instead of a light-hearted wrap-up with Portia and her lady Narissa giving their beaus comeuppance for giving away their engagement rings, Sullivan recasts Portia as disillusioned by Bassanio. Now Portia has come to know her betrothed’s nature and the vile antisemitism and dealings of his closest friends is evident to her. She has found her love, but as is universally the case, upon closer examination there are some downsides to her prince charming. The father’s fortune Portia helped deed to Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, causes tears and remorse in its recipient as Portia looks on from above in the play's closing image.

In addition to the fresh approach, the play benefits from a very simple but good looking production. The stage contains a number of metal work gates that are situated in concentric circles and rotated to different positions to differentiate various scenes. There is a small two-story tower with balcony and spiral staircase as well and a large abacus filled panel above that suggests an exchange market. The set never gets in the way of a number of great performances in the cast. Lily Rabe deserves every prize she can get her hands on for this performance, which is far more complex that the typical sharp and witty young woman who usually populates this story. Then there is Al Pacino. He’s the name above the title in this revival and while that is not surprising, my past experience has suggested it is no guarantee of anything. I remember a particular run of Wilde’s Salome directed by Estelle Parsons in 2006 where he played King Herod that is still one of the most excruciating things I’ve ever seen. But his Shylock is superb – angry, defiant, and never overdone in any way, it’s one of those Hollywood star-turns on Broadway that actually delivers returns. (Not that Pacino doesn’t have an extensive theater history, I’m just pointing out his broad-based fame which has grown out of his film career is used to help sell tickets which is certainly a reasonable thing to do.) The evening was a great one for me as well, because it was one of those where my feelings about a work changed. The Merchant of Venice is considered a great play by many but before now I’ve never understood why. And thanks to Daniel Sullivan and The Public Theater, now I get it. The show has recently been extended through February 20 and is highly recommended.


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