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July 2, 2010

TT: Out of the park

After a string of variously unsatisfying Shakespeare in the Park productions presented by the Public Theater in recent years, I'm delighted to report in this morning's Wall Street Journal that Daniel Sullivan's Merchant of Venice is a major event. Here's an excerpt.

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thumb.jpgThe distracting presence of a movie star, even one who knows (as most don't) what to do on a stage, can be a heavy burden for a classic play to bear. Thus it was with a fair amount of trepidation that I went to Central Park to watch Al Pacino, who was last seen on a New York stage in 2003, play Shylock in the Public Theater's outdoor version of "The Merchant of Venice." Mr. Pacino is, or can be, a formidable stage actor, which is one of the reasons why his film performances so often seem overblown. But he is also a celebrity, and I feared the distorting effects of his outsized personality on a play that has more than enough troubles of its own. So what happened? Mr. Pacino's performance was interesting but problematic--and the rest of the show was so good that it didn't matter. Not only is this the best "Merchant of Venices" I've ever reviewed, but it's one of the finest Shakespeare productions I've ever seen, period.

Daniel Sullivan, the director, was responsible for the hideous modern-dress "Julius Caesar" in which Denzel Washington embarrassed himself on Broadway five years ago. But everyone deserves a second chance, and I rejoice to say that Mr. Sullivan also deserves much credit for the illuminating force of this "Merchant," which is set in a brokerage house in Vicwardian London, a mercilessly genteel land of spats, cravats and don't-think-twice-it's-all-right anti-Semitism. Imposing high directorial concepts on Shakespeare's plays doesn't always serve them well, but it makes good dramatic sense to transplant the tale of Shylock and his Christian tormentors into a time and place in which Jews were treated with near-universal disdain. It therefore becomes unnecessary for the other characters to underline their contempt for Shylock: We take it for granted....

Mr. Pacino has opted to make Shylock a traditional "comic" stage Jew, an interpretation that will cause some viewers to wince but makes sense--up to a point--in the context of the evening. What I waited for in vain was the clinching moment when he unsheathes his sword and sets loose his rage. I never expected to see a soft-edged Shylock from Mr. Pacino, but that's pretty much what he's giving us, though he and Mr. Sullivan have cooked up between them a redemptive coup de théâtre about which I'll say only that it's worth the wait.

That said, I can't imagine a better ensemble cast than the one assembled for this production....

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted July 2, 2010 12:00 AM

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