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Saturday, 20 November 2010 15:50

Broadway Review: THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

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Lily Rabe, Al Pacino and Byron Jennings in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE Lily Rabe, Al Pacino and Byron Jennings in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE Photo: Joan Marcus

The Public Theater’s production of The Merchant of Venice is spectacular in every facet.  This is the same production that played the park last summer to “sold out” crowds.  The cast, without exception, are masterly in their portrayals.  This may well be the finest ensemble cast I have ever seen on Broadway.  There is not a deficiency anywhere to be found in cast or production.  Al Pacino and Byron Jennings lead the cast as Shylock and Antonio, the Jewish moneylender and merchant of Venice, respectively.  Lily Rabe is a regal and radiant Portia, the wealthy heiress.  Daniel Sullivan’s facile direction has rendered a production that flows with a connective tissue so finely woven as to be invisible.  

Shakespeare’s comedy is crisply rendered by this fine cast.  Thank goodness for these lighter moments for anyone with a sense of decency will find this play hard to watch.  It is representative of the way that Jews were treated at the time, with scorn and ridicule.  The antisemitism is blatant and cutting.  

Bassanio, Antonio’s friend (wonderfully played by David Harbour) is in need of funds to impress and woo Portia as a proper suitor.  Time and again Antonio has helped his friend with money.  While he is unable to provide it himself he agrees to use his good name as capital.  Bassanio approaches Shylock about laying out the 3,000 ducats using Antonio as the guarantor. Shylock hates Antonio for his blatant antisemitism but agrees to lend the money on the condition that should Antonio not be able to repay the funds at the end of three months, Shylock will be able to take in exchange a pound of flesh from Antonio.

Meanwhile, Portia, following her father’s will is seeking a suitor via a form of contest.  There are three boxes, one gold, one silver and one lead.  In one of the boxes is an image of Portia, to the man who selects this box goes the prize of her hand in marriage.  Prior to Bassanio’s arrival, two princes make an attempt at a guess.  Isaiah Johnson is the prince of Monocco and the marvelous Charles Kimbrough is the prince of Arragon.  Mr. Kimbrough makes the most of his moment on the stage.  Though short, it earns him a well-deserved round of applause as he exits.  Neither of the two princes guess correctly and are sent away wifeless, as they have agreed to remain the rest of their days in exchange for this one chance.  

Also in the cast is the funny and elfin Christopher Fitzgerald (last seen on Broadway in Finian’s Rainbow) as Shylock’s servant Launcelot.  Of Rent and “Law & Order” fame we have the talented Jesse L. Martin as Gratiano.  Marsha Stephanie Blake is Nerissa, Portia’s lady in waiting and subsequently the wife to Gratiano.  Heather Lind is Jessica, Shylock’s daughter who runs away with Lorenzo, played by Seth Numrich.

The stand-out performance of this production (if it can be said to have one) is Ms. Rabe’s performance as Portia, both showing her feminine wiles as Portia and her wisdom as the disguised Balthazar, the doctor who ultimately saves Antonio’s life.  I will be greatly disappointed if she is not recognized for this role at Tony Award time.  (Has anyone noticed that Ms. Rabe shares an uncanny vocal quality similar to that of the lovely Kate Mulgrew.)

Mr. Sullivan has chosen to set the play in an Edwardian stock exchange.  Set designer Mark Wendland has created a central circular set that rotates.  Its parts include a semi-circular set of abacuses of massive proportion and a mirroring iron gate, separating those who are welcome from those who are not and doubling as the Merchant’s debtor’s prison.  Kenneth Posner’s lights bath the set with a glow that gives it added dimension and character.  Jess Goldstein’s costumes and the materials he has chosen to make them are stunning.  The incidental music written by Dan Moses Schreier perfectly sets the tone for the production.  

Thankfully the producers of this production are talking about extending beyond the initially set closing date of January 9th, as well they should if at all possible.  When you assemble a cast this fine, you don’t want it to end.  If you have not seen this production, get thee to the Broadhurst box office before it’s too late.

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Last modified on Thursday, 09 July 2015 03:04