"The Merchant of Venice"

The Public Theater’s free Shakespeare in the Park series is presenting two of the Bard’s more challenging comedies in repertory: the ever controversial “The Merchant of Venice,” which has not had a major New York production since 1989, when Dustin Hoffman played Shylock, and the magical romance “The Winter’s Tale.” The concept of rotating repertory is not new to the Public Theater. It remains to be seen if this pairing (unlike the historically connected condensation “The War of the Roses,” which rotated the “Henry VI” plays and “Richard III” almost 40 years ago) will initiate the public’s acceptance of repertory styled theater. It certainly will make someone with a preference for one or the other to make sure they pick the right night. There’s a how-to get tickets at the end of the reviews.

There is no doubt that the elements of friendship, love, revenge, and overt anti-Semitism, so tenuously blended in “The Merchant of Venice” are all nicely served by director Daniel Sullivan in his unfussy staging. The action, with an opening scene in the closing minutes of the stock exchange, appears to take place in the early years of the 20th century. But, whenever I am (or feel) compelled to sit through this hard-to-laugh-at comedy, I have to resort to finding solace in almost everything but the story and the eternal enigma regarding Shakespeare’s true intention and purpose.

Sullivan has to be praised for at least figuring out how to best cope with the three interlocking plots, and also cater to the now familiar idiosyncrasies of the play’s star, Al Pacino. While Pacino, who starred in a 2004 filmed version set respectfully in the 16th century, takes an honest and believable approach to Shylock’s ethnicity, he also indulges the more acerbic side of Shylock’s sense of humor.

Although I could spend time carping about the way that Pacino bends Shakespeare’s prose, I was more fascinated by the way he was able to convince me that he was nobody’s fool, and still begging to be foiled. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Pacino’s technique is not one to be compromised by his awe for Shakespeare’s language. Indeed, it is the unexpected turn of a phrase that keeps us in the thrall of an extremely unpleasant comedy. But he does show us with every sly and subversive response to the extremely bigoted and racist society in which he lives that he is a man who is capable of carving a pound of flesh from his debtor, Antonio.

If there is an essential character element that is greatly enhanced it is in revealing Shylock’s more humane side. Two scenes that will remain forged in my memory: Shylock, having been stripped of his wealth by the vengeful Christians, is forced to undergo the rite of baptism, and then the sight of him walking slowly away from his humiliation alone and friendless.

One really cannot blame the actors when the characters they have to play and their prescribed relationships seem only designated to inflate the plot. Are we supposed to be dismayed or made happy by the callous and calculated way that Shylock’s daughter, Jessica (Heather Lind), escapes from the watchful eye of her overly protective (and with good reason) father? But we are, nevertheless, as beguiled by her Jessica as is her good-looking Venetian lover, Lorenzo (as personably played by Bill Heck), and with whom she elopes.

Lily Rabe gives a refreshingly untypical performance as Portia, the very rich and very smart lady who not only figures out how to catch the husband of her choice but also how to give an effective speech. Since none of the play’s verse reaches the level of Portia’s famous speech beginning “The quality of mercy is not strain’d,” Rabe gives it a persuasively lyrical ring. And she also looks good in drag when she gives the speech disguised as a learned doctor.

There are some very fine supporting performances, many of whom are also cast in the “The Winter’s Tale.” Byron Jennings couldn’t be more solicitously loathsome as the merchant Antonio, who despises Shylock for being a Jew and a usurer. Hamish Linklater has a quirky self-effacing countenance as Portia’s penniless suitor.

Sullivan, who has proved himself a deft hand with Shakespeare, has staged the play beautifully within designer Mark Wendland’s revolving and mobile metal structures.

At the performance I attended, a full moon added to the atmospherics. Except for the silly, certainly unfixable wrap-up scene, Sullivan moves his company with style and allows the comical wooing of Portia by two notably silly suitors to provide what little humor there is in this famously unpleasant comedy. **

"The Winter’s Tale"

That it has been referred to as one of the Bard’s lesser works has not dissuaded directors from approaching its convoluted, preposterous plot and essentially unmotivated exposition with a defensive passion. Director Michael Grief is a Public Theater favorite and an advocate for the unconventional staging of a classic. A huge movable skyline of glass windows is but one of the visual treats created by scenic designer Mark Wendland that enhance the journeys to and from the ancient lands of Sicilia and Bohemia. The costume designs by Jess Goldstein are handsomely muted.

But there is nothing muted about the first portion of this play in which we see a how a court falls victim to the unfounded ranting and raving of their king and his behavioral idiocy. Leontes, the king of Sicilia (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), suddenly goes mad with jealousy because he (for no apparent reason) suspects and then accuses the incontestably pregnant queen, Hermione (Linda Emond), of having had an affair with their house guest, Polixenes (Jesse L. Martin), his best friend, the king of Bohemia. Throughout the play, Polixenes’s gallantry as shown by Martin is to be admired.

We can only guess (since Shakespeare doesn’t make it too clear) that even best friends can overstay their welcome. Paradoxically, after the play’s first half, in which we see how a distressingly paranoid monarch slanders, humiliates, alienates, and even destroys most everyone he holds dear, we are treated to a second half all bathed in sweetness and light (with a significant assist from lighting designer Ken Posner) to making everyone live happily ever after.

Not one of Shakespeare’s greatest hits, “The Winter’s Tale” makes up for its lack of coherence and cohesiveness in its ability to provoke our continued interest. And certainly its rush of exquisite lyricism is not to be overlooked.

Grief keeps this intriguingly lopsided and fragmented play moving along even if we feel the tug of bemused amusement. It seems doubtful that Grief had any intentions to make this undeniably make-believe world, in which time and tide run amok, more than meets the eye. In other words, don’t look for an inlay of psychological complexity. Hard as we try, it is hard to forgive the obviously paranoid Leontes for his mindless stupidity. His difficult-to-swallow redemption, however, does not preclude our need to re-evaluate his psychosis in the light of his change of heart.

Linda Emond’s display of patience-in-adversity as that “precious creature” Hermione is heartbreaking to watch. As expected, Marianne Jean-Baptiste is a burst of feminine fury as Paulina, the court physician and resident loudmouth. Heather Lind, as the long-lost daughter, Perdita, and Francois Battiste, as the a-wooing Prince Florizel, impresses as the lovesick teens. Not generally moved to laughter by the antics of most Shakespeare’s comical characters, I found the cleverly devised clothes swapping of Hamish Linklater, as the roguish Autolycus and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, as Clown the imbecilic young shepherd, funny indeed.

With its romantic innocence tainted by macabre undertones and its gorgeous poetry tested by melodramatic excess, “The Winter’s Tale” makes uncompromised appreciation difficult. But try it, you may like it. **

“The Merchant of Venice” and “The Winter’s Tale,” performed in repertory through Sunday, August 1. Tickets to Shakespeare in the Park are free and are distributed, two per person, at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park at 1 p.m. the day of the show. Be forewarned: People begin lining up for tickets in the early morning, some even the night before outside the park. The Public Theater will again offer free tickets online at www.shakespeareintehpart.org.

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