Monday, January 31, 2011

The Italian Job - The Merchant of Venice - Play Review

The Merchant of Venice - Broadhurst Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by William Shakespeare, Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Closes Feb. 20th 2011

I'm never sure how to evaluate Shakespeare, since I'm not expert. There's always the usual signs, whether the company has performed the text in an understandable way and whether it keeps my attention (and I don't fall asleep). But I'm never quite sure. I think I tend to give the actors the benefit of the doubt that they know what they're saying, and if I get bored, it's just me, but shouldn't a truly exceptional production of Shakespeare at least keep me awake?

And awake I was during this production of The Merchant of Venice, the latest Shakespeare to be revived on Broadway, courtesy of a popular run at The Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park run at the Delacorte Theatre last summer. I'm not sure I still fully understood everything that was going on, and I definitely didn't specifically understand at least 1/3 to half the lines, but I still found the production enthralling and exquisite, with a radiant Lily Rabe (The American Plan) holding a glow on stage, and of course, being able to see Al Pacino on Broadway live on stage.

Of course, The Merchant of Venice is quite controversial in itself, with its depiction of Jews in negative connotations. Add to the fact that the play seems to vary from heavy dark drama to light comedic romance, swinging back and forth throughout the play, and upon my first viewing, I wasn't sure what to expect or how to react.

The circular iron post set (remnants from the circular stage in the park) creates some lovely movements and flow as angles shift as things rotate around the stage. There's definitely a haunting quality to the dim but elegant lighting (by Kenneth Posner) and the precise nature of the iron look (by Mark Wendland).

Daniel Sullivan, who directed the delightful Twelfth Night in the park in 2009, creates at atmospheric, and slick production, that keeps the clogs continuously moving, even when the play switches up from the dramatic to the comedic. While all the performances don't seem to have a unifying quality to it (with actors seemingly in different plays at times), the nature of the multiple story threads of such differing nature, makes me wonder if it is even possible to do so.

Oscar winner Al Pacino leads the way as the dramatic centre of the story as Shylock. While I'm not someone who thinks Al Pacino is the GREATEST ACTOR EVER in film (he's great, but greatest?), here, he's wonderful on stage from beginning to tragic end.

Then there's the radiant Lily Rabe as Portia, who must float between a romantic love story with Bessanio (David Harbour), the comedy of other suitors, and seeking dramatic revenge in the courtroom. It's quite the balancing act and Rabe does wonders balancing it all effortlessly. If Pacino is the dramatic core, Rabe is the heart of the show.

As the other suitors after Portia's love (and riches), Charles Kimbrough (Murphy Brown) and Isaiah Johnson are both hysterical in their lone scenes trying to win Portia in marriage.

Christopher Fitzgerald (Finian's Rainbow, Minsky's, Young Frankenstein) is, as always, a delight as Launcelot Gobbo, Shylock's servant, in love with his daughter Jessica.

Heather Lind's Jessica and her paramour Lorenzo, played by Seth Numrich (in the upcoming War Horse on Broadway), are lovely and cute together and make for a nice romantic and youthful diversion from the more unsettling themes in the play.

There are some fine performances from the rest of the large ensemble, including a wondering Marsha Stephanie Blake as Portia's gentlewoman Nerissa, Jesse L. Martin as Gratiano, and David Harbour as Bassanio, the man in love with Portia.

Byron Jennings's Antonio was probably the sole performance I truly did not enjoy, which is a shame since Jenning's is usually so reliable.

Alas, people are flocking to see Al Pacino, and they won't be disappointed, especially with the beautifully haunting finale when yet another reveal in the set created a space that is both romantically beautiful (for Jessica and Lorenzo) and chilling for Shylock.

But it's Lily Rabe that has the most lasting impression, as her Portia, and Rabe's performance, ties together the various threads and differing tones of the play.

So while I missed some of the details in some of the lines Shakespeare wrote, I still understood all the various (if totally mixed) storylines and found Daniel Sullivan's production of The Merchant of Venice entrancing and fascinating. It was also interesting to watch the controversial play that this production both seems to acknowledge and brings it out to enhance the drama and the issues at hand. It creates an interesting balance, where heroes are not necessarily good and villains are not exactly bad, and it adds a depth to the play just as the various layers the rotating set creates.

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