This is a good time for a confession: I am not much of a Shakespearean. I’ve read some of the plays, and I’ve seen others produced, but I’ve never studied them, and I don’t speak reverently of Olivier’s Hamlet (nor, if you prefer, Jude Law’s). I don’t love what I’ve seen, either: I find some of the plays overlong, repetitive and more than occasionally ridiculous. (Were Elizabethan husbands really so dim that they could regularly be fooled into believing their wives to be men by the change of a hat and a different tunic?) And, most basically, I reject the idea that deep study is a prerequisite to enjoyment of a play; an informed, intelligent and engaged theatergoer should be able to enjoy the performance he sees even without homework.
All of which makes me pleased to report that two Shakespeare in the Park productions-The Merchant of Venice and The Winter’s Tale, which are being presented in repertory and opened on consecutive nights late last week at the Delacorte Theater-are spectacularly delightful evenings. Both productions-Merchant is directed by Daniel Sullivan, and Winter’s Tale by Michael Greif-are accessible and comprehensible, florid and moving, and, for the most part, sparely but gorgeously staged.
First, Merchant. It’s one of Shakespeare’s most familiar plays: the money-lending Jew, the pound of flesh, the pricking and bleeding. In Central Park this summer, it also offers one of New York’s most famous-and New Yorkiest-actors, Al Pacino.
And the good news is that this notoriously hammy actor, in a potentially very hammy part, largely manages to restrain himself, chewing much less scenery than you might expect. Shylock’s famously enraged speeches are ferociously emotional-as they should be; the man has spent his life being insulted, dismissed and spat upon for his religion-but there’s very little of Mr. Pacino’s hoo-ah film mugging.
Still, the familiar mannerisms are sometimes jarring: “Let the forfeit,” Mr. Pacino growls, laying out the terms of Shylock’s notorious loan, “be nominated for an equal pound”-here he shrugs-”of your fair flesh”-another shrug-”to be cut off and taken”-now a pause-”in what part of your body pleaseth me”-finally a slight, small “heh” of release. And, elsewhere, his New York honk, on full display, leaves some lines read as if by a Boca retiree. If we catch the early-bird, one nearly wonders, do we not get a better deal? But that’s what you get with your Pacino. And he is, anyway, charismatic, almost addictive, impossible to look away from while he’s onstage.
Much of the rest of the cast is as good as Mr. Pacino, if not better. Lily Rabe is marvelous, her heiress Portia not only beautiful but also alluringly confident, intelligent and more than a little snarky. Other standouts include Hamish Linklater as a nervous and charming young nobleman Bassanio, whose cash-flow problem necessitates that his patron Antonio seek Shylock’s unusually structured loan loan, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Portia’s caring but stern lady-in-waiting, Nerissa.
Mr. Sullivan’s production puts these 16th-century Venetians in Edwardian clothes and sets the action around a large, wrought-iron contraption in the middle of the Delacorte’s stage, parts of which rotate into different scenes-a stock exchange as the play opens, Portia’s house, Shylock’s house and so on. It’s all very handsome, if perhaps just a bit fussy.
And of course, the big question: Is The Merchant of Venice anti-Semitic? I don’t know. Shakespeare created one of the iconic images of a money-grubbing Jew; he also makes clear Shylock was only driven to such dramatic revenge after a lifetime of indignity and while his daughter is being essentially stolen from him. But it’s worth noting that the play is considered a comedy, and, as such, it has a happy ending: three contented couples finally brought together, and one forcibly converted Jew.
THE WINTER’S TALE, meanwhile, is one of those Shakespeare plays that I find simply too ridiculous. Women in Merchant may put on hats and convince their husbands they’re male judges, but in Winter’s Tale, one rogue changes his hat twice and manage to con the same people three times. The play has an intense, chilling first half-Leontes, the king of Sicilia, in an unfounded jealous rage, sends off his newborn daughter to die, causing his wife and son to die, too-and a lighthearted second half, with mistaken identities, broad comedy, happy reunions and a seemingly miraculous reincarnation. (It is also known for, of all things, a stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”)
But if the play is silly, Mr. Greif, directing a fine cast, makes it a fine silliness. Jesse L. Martin is commanding as the king of Bohemia; Mr. Linklater, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Max Wright (you’ll recall him as Willie from ALF) pleasantly pratfall their way through the comedy. And Ms. Jean-Baptiste, once again playing a lady-in-waiting, is once again excellent, the clarion voice of reason in Sicilia as her queen is wronged.
Mr. Greif leaves the Delacorte’s big, round stage mostly bare, with only a large glass wall upstage tilting up and down to sometimes suggest the sea, or a wall, or just a hill in the distance. He spreads his actors around it, creating sprawling and open tableaux in the open and sprawling park.
Early in the play, when Leontes puts his wife on trial and against all reason convicts her of adulterous treason, the magisterial Linda Emond, as the magisterial Queen Hermione, is on a small, raised platform in the center of the stage, in a flowing white dress, with burning cauldrons around the stage and sentries standing guard at its edge. She rails against the injustice being done to her, with her hair and dress and the trees behind her blown by Central Park’s winds as she stands on that platform, almost a gallows, all alone. And the moment-fine acting, stark staging, a beautiful night in the beautiful park-is unforgettable.