Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Merchant of Venice

The intense debate over whether Shakespeare's portrayal of the Jewish moneylender Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice" is anti-semitic or sympathetic is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

Though the bulk of “Merchant” focuses on Bassanio, a young Venetian who woos and wins the wealthy heiress Portia, it remains most famous for Shylock, who makes a loan to the merchant Antonio while using a pound of Antonio’s flesh as collateral. When Antonio defaults on the loan, Shylock seeks both justice and revenge.

But as played by Al Pacino in Dan Sullivan's excellent production at Shakespeare in the Park, Shylock comes off not as a villain, but as both a wildly theatrical and complex tragic figure reacting to religious oppression.

This summer's Shakespeare in the Park season features a single company of actors performing both "The Merchant of Venice" and "The Winter's Tale" together, though Pacino appears only in "Merchant." This is the first time since the 1970s that the Public Theater has used a repertory company, which was once the bread and butter of acting troupes.

The costumes evoke an Edwardian motif, with a minimalistic set design consisting of revolving black iron gates. In an unusual move, Sullivan also adds a powerful, wordless scene depicting the forced Baptism of Shylock near the end of the play, in which he is violently dunked into a pool of water.

Pacino is joined by an unusually strong ensemble cast. Lily Rabe makes for an intelligent, fierce and very funny Portia. Bryon Jennings is completely believable as Antonio, mixing paternal affection for young Bassanio with unrequited homosexual attraction. As Bassanio, Hamish Linklater comes off as fragile, idiotic and impetuous, which helps drive the audience's sympathy away from him and toward Shylock.

Jesse L. Martin, Bill Heck, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Jessica Lind, all of whom appear in both "Merchant" and "The Winter's Tale," manage to bring spice and spark to smaller, often forgettable roles.

"The Merchant of Venice" plays through August 1 at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. Enter the park at 81st Street and Central Park West or 79th Street and Fifth Avenue.

How to get Shakespeare in the Park tickets:

1. Try your luck on line. 2 free tickets per person are distributed outside the Delacorte Theatre at 1 PM on the date of performance. Better wake up early.

2. Try your luck online. There is a virtual lottery at publictheater.org that you can enter. It's pretty difficult to win.

3. Pay up. You can purchase expensive Summer Supporter tickets, but we advise against purchasing tix on Craig's List.

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