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The Merchant of Venice

Daniel Sullivan's memorable production of Shakespeare's play benefits from Al Pacino's decidedly human take on Shylock and Lily Rabe's sublime turn as Portia.

By New York City
Lily Rabe and Al Pacino in
The Merchant of Venice
(© Joan Marcus)
Lily Rabe and Al Pacino in
The Merchant of Venice
(© Joan Marcus)
Audience members -- even those who had to wait in line for hours for tickets -- won't be disappointed in Al Pacino as Shylock, the marquee attraction in Daniel Sullivan's extremely memorable production of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, the first offering of the Public Theatre's Shakespeare in the Park season at the Delacorte Theatre. But it's the sublime Lily Rabe, as his unlikely adversary Portia, who walks off with the evening's highest honors, proving (yet again) that she may be the finest stage actress of her generation.

As the Jewish moneylender bent on revenge against the Christians who have wronged him -- a plot point heavily underscored by the savvy Sullivan -- the 70-year-old Pacino delivers the kind of sui generis performance he has built his career on, complete with the idiosyncratic inflections, the off-kilter line readings, and that signature hangdog expression. The actor's customary, over-the top flamboyance, however, only rarely rears its head. In the end, he delivers a decidedly human Shylock, neither villainous nor overly sympathetic -- and in many ways, the lower-key approach to the role keeps the play in balance.

Rabe, however, dazzles from her first entrance in a striking red dress from designer Jess Goldstein. (All of the costumes conjure the turn-of-the-20th Century; and Rabe's outfits, in particular, provide a colorful contrast to Mark Wendland's stark if effective metal unit-set.) Bemoaning the elaborate plan that her late father devised to pick her husband to her maid Nerissa (the lovely Marianne-Jean Baptiste), we quickly see that Portia is witty, intelligent, slightly prickly, and wise beyond her years.

It's an arc that continues and heightens through the show's later scenes, in which she finds a way to truly bring justice to Shylock's suit against the merchant Antonio (the ever-superb Byron Jennings) from whom he demands a pound of flesh for failing to pay his loan. Moreover, it's not just that Rabe's recitation of Portia's famed "the quality of mercy" speech is extraordinarily well thought-out, but practically every word that comes out of her mouth seems just as carefully considered. Those include her giddy declarations of love -- and later, her slightly bitter admonishments -- to her husband Bassanio (Hamish Lanklater, alternately goofy, romantic, and forthright), who is the "cause" of the obviously lovestruck Antonio's woes.

Perhaps aware of keeping the attention of the Delacorte's sometimes restless audiences, Sullivan emphasizes the comic aspects of the show's first act -- a decision that can initially seem jarring. However, when the second act grows darker (literally as well as figuratively), Sullivan turns on the dramatic heat and the show's disparate tones finally cohere. With Wendland's help, Sullivan also pulls off a very striking coup de theatre toward's the play's end -- creating not just the show's most haunting image, but one which brings the historical injustices of Shakespeare's time into sharp focus.

Above all, Sullivan is aided in his mission with the kind of "luxury" cast one rarely gets to see (many of the them clearly tempted by the chance to do this show and The Winter's Tale in repertory). Among the company's standouts are Jesse L. Martin as the very merry Gratiano, Jesse Tyler Ferguson as the hilariously sarcastic servant Launcelot Gobbo, Bill Heck and newcomer Jessica Lind as unlikely lovers Lorenzo and Jessica (Shylock's rebellious daughter), and Nyambi Nyambi and Max Wright, both of whom make the most of their brief roles as Portia's unfortunate suitors, The Prince of Morocco and the Prince of Aragon.


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