Review: Shakespeare in the Park

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Pacino shines in ‘Merchant’; ‘Winter’s Tale’ intoxicates

By Deirdre Donovan

Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice has meant very different things at very different times. It began its stage life with a comic Shylock in a false nose and evolved through the centuries into a drama of great pathos. But whether you see this play as a comedy or tragedy, Daniel Sullivan’s staging at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, starring Al Pacino as Shylock, is incisive and arresting.

Lily Rabe, Byron Jennings and Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice.

Pacino’s Shylock holds the attention. Without forcing a syllable or gesture, Pacino constantly makes a point. He is incredibly interesting to watch, and plays his character as a small-minded patriarch who prides himself on his money lending on the Venetian Rialto. There are emotionally searing moments: for example, his character’s best-known speech of “Hath not a Jew eyes?” reminds you again that the spiteful Shylock is not without human feeling. Other contemporary productions have stressed this conceit but Pacino, with his gritty New York voice, pulls it off with fresh gravitas.

Fortunately, the rest of the cast is not eclipsed by Pacino. While the star undoubtedly has mega-wattage on the boards, there are a number of other actors who deliver big-time. There’s Lily Rabe, as Portia, who turns in an especially luminous performance. Playing opposite Rabe is the protean Hamish Linklater as Bassanio, who evolves from a mere fortune-hunter to Portia’s true-love during the evening. Byron Jennings, as the nominal character, is suitably urbane.

To be sure, the real protagonist of this story is money. And it eventually taints everybody who lends, borrows, steals, uses or enjoys its luxuries. Venice is a city of commerce, after all, and even the Christians know that money is the vital ingredient of their workaday world.

This production takes a few liberties with Shakespeares’ text: Sullivan has inserted a scene that has Shylock baptized in full view of the audience. This invented stage business vividly underscores one of the sticking points of the story: The Christian morality in Venice is often cruel and punitive.

If The Merchant of Venice is a deeply disturbing play with dark energies, then The Winter’s Tale is awash with enchantment. Although the drama opens like a tragedy, Shakespeare’s genius turns the plot inside-out before the final scene arrives.

The story, in many ways, resembles a fairytale. Polixenes, King of Bohemia, visits his old friend Leontes, King of Sicilia. Polixenes is so charming to his wife Hermione that Leontes believes that they are lovers and he has fathered her unborn child. I would be a spoiler to recount all the intricacies of the story here, but suffice it to say that Leontes’s mad jealousy causes a number of tragic events.

The problem with this production is that Ruben Santiago-Hudson is miscast in the leading role. Merely adequate in the part, Santiago-Hudson doesn’t add any fresh nuances to his character. Curiously, the star turn in this production belongs to Marianne Jean-Baptiste, playing the feisty Paulina. This show, directed by Michael Greif, also has the daunting task of playing in repertory with Merchant. Repertory theater has many virtues, but it has one unavoidable drawback: one production typically outshines the other.

Still, you can’t go wrong with this show. Certain plays repay repeated seeing, and The Winter’s Tale is one of them.

Instead of thinking in the “hit and flop” mentality of Broadway, you should go to both Delacorte offerings this summer to enjoy their Shakespearean resonances and to watch the actors perform in contrasting roles. In Merchant, you have a rare opportunity to watch the legendary Pacino on the boards; and in The Winter’s Tale, you can reflect on the wonder of “second chances” in life.

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Shakespeare in the Park
Performances continue through Aug. 1.
Tickets to both shows are free.
For additional information, visit www.shakespeareinthepark.org or call 212-539-8750.

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