'Merchant of Venice': Al Pacino's Shylock is a moving take on an immovable man

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 1, 2010

NEW YORK -- Does anyone assume the posture of immovable maverick more persuasively than Al Pacino? In a line from Serpico to Kevorkian, Pacino has made a career of projecting the essences of men who ferociously stake out causes and dig in their heels. Some element of their intensity -- whether because of their sense of justice or self-involvement -- naturally invigorates this actor, whose characters never seem more alive than at the moment the world makes them pay for their intransigence.

Now he's at it again, portraying one of the stubbornest, most isolated and cruelly treated figures in all of Shakespeare -- Shylock the moneylender -- in the Public Theater's sterling new staging of "The Merchant of Venice." Under the stars in Central Park's Delacorte Theater, director Daniel Sullivan imagines Venice as a gilded jail, a society defined by circular, concentric cages and the idea that everything and everyone in them has a price.

It's a universe of hypocrisy, and no one sees the irony more fully than Pacino's gritty, hangdog Shylock, who's only too happy to remind Antonio (Byron Jennings) -- the merchant who shows up with hand outstretched for a loan -- that his more usual greeting is to "spit upon my Jewish gabardine." The notion of a two-faced gentile establishment gets under this Shylock's skin. And it gives a moral weight to Pacino's fine performance that is sustained all the way through the famous courtroom scene, when the disguised Portia (the wonderful Lily Rabe) outwits him in his quest to take from Antonio his contractual pound of flesh.

Though "The Merchant of Venice" is frequently categorized by scholars as one of Shakespeare's comedies, its anti-Semitic characters -- the way, for instance, the word "Jew" is used by them as an epithet -- make it impossible for us to see how the work can be grouped with "As You Like It." It does boast some pointed satire in the wooing of moneybags Portia by her effete suitors, required to solve the riddle of the gold, silver and lead chests. But we can't help but think of Shylock's humiliation, no matter how repugnant his court case, as something other than the stuff of comedy.

Sullivan clearly thinks so, too, for while this "Merchant" by no means casts this Shylock as a good man, it offers the most compelling argument I've ever seen for him as neither hero nor villain: just a man driven to the edge by torturous grievance. Pacino played the character in a 2004 movie, but the stage portrayal cuts deeper. It's this actor's genius that he can make the demand for a surgical removal of a chunk of Antonio sound almost reasonable. That Shylock takes a taste for vengeance too far -- and that Venice exacts its own excessive justice in return -- is his tragedy, as well as the city's.

To help us see this, the director has invented a scene, shocking in its way: After the judges consult with Antonio on a punishment for Shylock, a conversion to Christianity, we are privy in this version to the judgment being carried out. A pool of water is uncovered on designer Mark Wendland's superb set of revolving metal bars. Pacino is led into it for his baptism, and the dunking is a violent spasm, as if the attendants want to drown him instead. Dazed, Pacino gropes in the dark for the skull cap that has been taken from him and thrown aside. He touchingly places it back on his soaked head, chastened but not really changed.

All, in fact, is ruefulness here. Portia's battle with Shylock, waged out of love for Antonio's friend Bassanio (Hamish Linklater), accords her a hollow victory. She and her lady-in-waiting (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) discover afterward that their mates are not quite the steady customers that they had previously seemed. In Rabe's distressed countenance the question appears to arise: Why did she bother? The morning-after doubts are reflected, too, in the air of regret enveloping Shylock's daughter Jessica (Heather Lind), who runs off with a Christian (Bill Heck) and some of her father's money.

In an evening of smooth lead performances, a few other silky ones deserve mention, among them Jean-Baptiste's ultra-efficient Nerissa and Jennings's surprisingly vulnerable Antonio. The production itself glides confidently from subplot to subplot, showing us how the various narrative developments -- the contest for Portia's hand, the campaign to shore up Bassanio's debts, the settling of Shylock's claims -- are affairs that reduce human relations to mere transactions. In the atmosphere of Sullivan's poignant "Merchant," it's the currency of the heart that becomes ever more devalued.

The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Costumes, Jess Goldstein; lighting, Ken Posner; composer, Dan Moses Schreier; sound, Acme Sound Partners; fight director, Thomas Schall. With Jesse L. Martin, Nyambi Nyambi, Jesse Tyler Ferguson. About three hours. In repertory with "The Winter's Tale" through Aug. 1 at Delacorte Theater, Central Park, New York. Tickets are free and distributed daily at 1 p.m. at the theater or through

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