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The Merchant of Venice -- Theater Review

The Bottom Line

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Al Pacino famously spends years obsessing on the Shakespearean roles he takes on, but the results pay off.

Such is the case with his Shylock in the Central Park production of the Bard's still-controversial "The Merchant of Venice." Although his performance in the 2004 film often came across as mannered, his current stage rendition, while still possessing self-conscious qualities, is undeniably mesmerizing. Humanizing the character by bringing his pain and anguish to the fore, Pacino is the standout of director Daniel Sullivan's intelligent and thoughtful revival, which naturally has sparked a ticket frenzy for its limited summer run and talks about a possible Broadway transfer.

Set vaguely in the Victorian era, the production doesn't sacrifice the comedic aspects of the play -- the scenes involving Portia's (Lily Rabe) ill-fated suitors are among the funniest ever seen, for instance -- but its atmosphere is mainly harrowing. Antonio (Byron Jennings), the Christian nobleman in debt to Shylock, is here depicted as a loathsome aristocrat whose barely disguised contempt for the moneylender helps fuel his ire. Being prepared to give up his literal pound of flesh, he is chillingly strapped into an antique medical-examination chair.

Perhaps the director's biggest innovation is the addition of a powerful silent scene in which one sees Shylock submitting to a forced baptism. It not only vividly conveys the character's humiliation but also his inner strength as he afterward immediately resumes wearing the yarmulke that has been stripped from his head.

Speaking in a soft, sing-song voice, Pacino at first playfully emphasizes the character's wily intelligence and humor as well as his pained awareness of the marginal role in society to which he has been consigned. But after Shylock has been betrayed by his daughter, Jessica (Heather Lind), who has run off with the Christian Lorenzo (Bill Heck), he accentuates the anger and bitterness that feeds his subsequent cruelty.

Rabe's Portia is beautiful and sophisticated, with the actress uncommonly convincing in the pivotal scene in which she pretends to be the judge deciding Antonio's fate. Hamish Linklater is endearing as her lovestruck suitor, Bassanio, torn by his allegiance to his friend Antonio; Marianne Jean-Baptiste is moving as the gentlewoman Nerissa; and Jesse Tyler Ferguson has amusing moments as Shylock's servant, Launcelot Gobbo.

Mark Wendland's set design, consisting of an abstract series of metallic circles, cannily brings to mind the rings that figure so prominently in the plot line.

Venue: Delacorte Theatre, Central Park, New York (Through Aug. 1)
Presented by: New York Shakespeare Festival
Cast: Al Pacino, Lily Rabe, Byron Jennings, Hamish Linklater, Jesse L. Martin, Marianne Jean-Baptise, Bill Heck, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Heather Lind
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Daniel Sullivan
Scenic designer: Mark Wendland
Costume designer: Jess Goldstein
Lighting designer: Ken Posner
Composer: Dan Moses Schreier
Sound designer: Acme Sound Partners