New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

"The Merchant of Venice"
Shakespeare in the Park, Manhattan

It’s intriguing to think that the most famous Jew in dramatic literature is now being played by an Italian-American (and presumably Catholic). But why not? And indeed Al Pacino, now on stage at Shakespeare in the Park (in New York City’s Central Park) makes Shylock his own. The Public Theatre is now offering “The Merchant of Venice” in tandem with “The Winter’s Tale” at the Delacorte Theatre. Both Shakespearean plays enjoy spectacular staging at this delightful outdoor theater, where free tickets are offered to the public.

But back to Shylock. Pacino creates a character who appears to be  your ordinary man-in-the-street (at least ordinary for 16th century Venice). Neither villain nor victim when he first appears, Pacino/Shylock is convincingly normal, as he goes about his daily business.

But this Shylock creeps up on you, even as events creep up on him, building in intensity with each scene. Pacino moves restlessly about the stage, always in character, even when other players are engaged in dialogue. But you never take your eyes off this brilliant actor—and ultimately you are totally in his thrall.

Does Pacino create a sympathetic Shylock? Yes and no. On the one hand, he is sensible, frugal, devoted to his co-religionists, and struggling to survive as best he can. On the other hand, he is ruthless in his pursuit of revenge. In short, a human being, with strengths and weaknesses—as written in the text and brought home strongly by Pacino. Because there is so little sentimentality in this Pacino interpretation, it is a thoroughly believable portrayal. Ultimately, stripped of his worldly goods, Shylock is also forced to convert---or die—and undergoes an actual baptism. In every sense of the word he has been stripped.

All around, it is a solid production under Daniel Sullivan’s direction—handsome in its staging, lighting, and costuming, and backed by a thoroughly professional cast. A worthy effort by the Public Theater, producer of these Shakespeare in the Park summer events.

--Irene Backalenick
July 10, 2010

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