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The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare in the Park

The inclusion of “The Merchant of Venice” amongst Shakespeare’s comedies has often puzzled scholars. The overriding themes of revenge, hatred and punishment leave little room for the bawdiness and levity that marks the bard’s better known comedic works like “Twelfth Night,” “As You Like It,” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” But those puzzled scholars need only look to director Daniel Sullivan’s take on “Merchant” to find the humor absent from nearly all other productions.

Prior to directing “Merchant” for the annual summer program Shakespeare in the Park, Sullivan directed three of Shakespeare’s comedies for The Public Theatre: “Twelfth Night,” “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and it follows that he would approach “Merchant” in the same way. So how do you take a play that threatens to cut a pound of flesh from a man’s chest into something lighter and more palatable for a summer’s night? Sullivan’s answer is to not take everything so seriously.

Most productions of “Merchant” take Shakespeare’s lines at face value. In the opening scene Antonio (Byron Jennings) mopes and complains of unhappiness, but instead of allowing him to get away with it Sullivan makes his moodiness the first joke of the play and soon his cohorts are mocking his misery. At times Sullivan also makes Portia (Lily Rabe) and Bassiano (Hamish Linklater) into figures of black comedy, ridiculing prevailing social conventions. Rabe’s Portia is refreshingly sarcastic, down-to-earth and clearly capable of running her own house without a husband. She and her maid Nerissa (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) delight in deriding suitors like the lisping, buffoonish Moroccan prince or the feeble, tottering old Prince of Aragon. The secondary characters also serve to keep up the spirit of the production. When Lorenzo and Jessica woo by citing the doomed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe, Troilus and Cressida and even Medea, it’s funny, and the humorous delivery of their dialogue foreshadows the nature of their own relationship more pointedly than woeful lines could.

The only one who isn’t funny is Shylock (Al Pacino), who seeks a pound of Antonio’s flesh in as judicial and humorless a way as possible. Pacino first took on the role in the 2004 film of the same name, and ironically his stage performance is less theatrical. The over-the-top inflections and hand-gesturing that were trademarks of the movie-Shylock are toned down and in Sullivan’s production we see Pacino take a more humanist approach to the oft-typed character. In all their scenes together, Linklater, who has the most lines in the play, wisely plays down to Pacino, allowing him to work the stage. Linklater, it should be noted, delivers a pitch-perfect performance, embodying the humble, moneyless panderer he is to doting Antonio with as much ease as the cocksure braggadocio he is amongst his friends and the swaggering but sensitive wooer of Portia.

All this is carried off without mowing over the themes of Christian ethics vs. a racist Christian stereotype of Jews, made more complicated by the audience’s inability to wholly sympathize with either the frivolous, hedonistic Christians of Belmont or the vengeful Shylock, who readily confesses he would rather see his fortune returned than have his daughter back alive. Shakespeare includes no readymade allegiances for the audience to side with. Even Portia, the most virtuous character, who saves Antonio’s life with a bit of last minute legal know-how later cruelly tricks Bassanio into giving up his wedding ring, the symbol of her own virtue. Perhaps this is why “Merchant” is one of Shakespeare’s most enduring plays. The line between what is right and wrong is blurred, and Sullivan’s innovative and energizing approach shines new light on these various shades of grey in Shakespeare’s moral quandary.