The hottest summer ticket in New York City is free, and most who line up at 6:30AM to get tickets to a Shakespeare in the Park production will tell you it's worth the wait. Those who choose to brave it this year will be rewarded handsomely: Daniel Sullivan’s production of The Merchant of Venice is bold and robust and embraces the harsh realities of this play.
Mark Wendland's scenic design is immediately striking, demanding you take in each detail. Iron bars form semi-circular cages on tracks, able to open up and close the stage at will; a free-standing balcony on wheels with a spiral staircase is perfectly set for romantic gestures; a wall-sized abacus, leather-bound books as lamp stands, and big, important-looking desks lend an ancient and scholarly atmosphere. As the action progresses, it almost feels as though the rotating pieces on the set could be like a telescope, focusing and refocusing problems as the characters search for solutions.
Actors enter naturally in groups of twos and threes, deep in conversation or thought. Jess Goldstein costumes the Christians in serious attire, with pinstripe trousers, tails, vests, tiepins and such, giving subtle legitimacy to the Venetian business world. As a Jewish man and a young boy approach center stage, they are harshly treated by one man, and then approached by several others to do quick and possibly shady business: an uncomfortable juxtaposition of their backhanded role in society.
Byron Jennings as Antonio is calm and sincere—a master of all he commands—but you can see the years of responsibility in his demeanor and expressions. He is a professional gambler as a merchant, but a gambler nonetheless. His love for Bassanio (Hamish Linklater) is tender and paternal, with genuine affection and goodwill for his friend. Linklater as the young lover comes to him bereft, hoping that his boyish charm can sway his creditor and dear companion. But he shouldn't worry, for as Shylock points out and as Jennings declares proudly, Antonio lends gratis. Linklater shows clarity of intent and emotion in the language, along with his innate comedic timing.
The difference between Venice and Belmont is tangible: the cages open to reveal a charming country setting, lush with rich ornamentation and green from Central Park's surrounding flora. Goldstein chooses a cream livery for the Belmont staff and dresses Nerissa and Portia in saturated, vibrant colors, in contrast to the dark, brooding, menacing palette of Venice. Lighting designer Kenneth Posner even seems to harness the sun at dusk, in correlation with his own lights, to add brightness to an already beautiful world. Lily Rabe as Portia appreciates this enchanting land, but feels the bond of her dead father's wishes, as her beautiful prison still has bars and locks. Rabe is sassy, clever and critical, weary of the game, but part of her revels in the stupidity of her suitors. Nyambi Nyambi has the audience in stitches as the Prince of Morocco, and Max Wright as the prim, elderly Prince of Arragon provokes laughs and sympathy. When Bassanio finally comes to woo her and choose his casket, Rabe becomes love-silly, girlishly flouncing with true-steeled affection underneath. Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Nerissa supports Rabe throughout the process, but Jean-Baptiste really comes into her own when she meets the boisterously fun Gratiano, whose loud antics and hasty words are expertly embodied by Jesse L. Martin.
Sullivan teases out an interesting dynamic between Lorenzo, Jessica, and Gobbo: the nervous, twitchy Jessica (Heather Lind) rushes away from her father but realizes she's a fish out of water, not understanding the true isolation of being a Jew's daughter in a Christian world. She finds comfort in Shylock's former employee, Launcelot Gobbo (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), someone who can connect her to the safety of her former life. Ferguson plays his clown well and with plenty of laughs. Whether or not he's in love with Jessica, he has great affection for her, which Lorenzo (Bill Heck) certainly sees. This dynamic of imperfect love forecasts the unexpected but completely reasonable scorn and dismay that Portia and Nerissa have with their husbands after the parting of the rings. They are heartbroken, and though Bassanio and Gratiano try to make the bittersweet reunion and their foolish betrayal a lighthearted mishap, not all goes well in paradise.
But what of the Jew; what of Shylock? Al Pacino brings him to life as a slow, methodical, shrewd businessman. Emphasizing Shylock's crude and often distasteful metaphors that whiten the Christians' pallor, Pacino revels in the blunt harshness that proves his character's defense mechanism against an intolerant world. Pacino’s words spring spontaneously from his mouth, but we can practically see the wheels and cogs turning as he tries to take the most for the least. Pacino breathes the language and wields it like a sharpened knife, making an easy cut, but still cutting deep. His words and pauses resonate on the evening air, pulling all attention toward him so he may then give back the energy to his stage-mates. Pacino also demonstrates the honor that Shylock has for himself and his people. He makes an oath on the Sabbath—on everything he believes to be good and true—and would not perjure his soul for those who spurn him. His stubbornness is loyalty; his dogged pursuit of the “bond” seems more a fulfillment of a promise than a lack of mercy. And when Portia, the state, and the Christian majority throw the law at him with intentional cruelty—almost with satisfaction, emphasizing that he is not a citizen but an alien—I could feel Shylock shrink with defeat.
A few years ago, a friend and I were discussing the play after we saw a production of Merchant at the Globe in London, and my friend confessed that he hated this play and found it very difficult to watch. I disagreed, feeling that the emotional journey resonated with me, but I didn't translate the political, socio-economic, and racial issues into my own life. I felt that they were contained within the scope of the play, and when the curtain fell I separated myself from the hate and the injustice within the verse. But Sullivan’s production has changed that. For even though there are marriages and girls dressing as boys, this Merchant—in the deft hands of a wonderful director, an astounding cast, and a magical design team—is no comedy. This Merchant is eye opening, heart pounding, and it will leave you with “bated breath and whisp’ring humbleness.” If a 6:30AM queue doesn’t get you into the theater, you may want to offer a pound of your own flesh.
The Merchant of Venice runs June 12 – August 1, 2010 at Delacorte Theater in Central Park, located Mid-Park at 80th Street on the southwest corner of the Great Lawn. Information can be found at http://www.shakespeareinthepark.org/.