We know comparatively little about what Shakespeare’s audience actually saw and heard, a gap in our knowledge that offers both advantages and dangers: Actors and directors need to mine the published texts for clues, but also get an enhanced permission to make free with them. The authentic tradition disappeared when England fell into civil war; attempts to recapture it amount to educated guesswork. There are very few points about which one can say with certainty how Shakespeare’s company staged a given moment or what shadings they read into a particular speech. The plays’ greatness makes the challenge to solve their mysteries that much more exciting. Every performance of Shakespeare is an adventure that may supply some startling revelation.
The Public’s two New York Shakespeare Festival productions in Central Park this year, The Merchant of Venice and The Winter’s Tale, are performed in alternating rep, with only two leading players in each show—Al Pacino (Shylock) and Lily Rabe (Portia) in Merchant; Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Leontes) and Linda Emond (Hermione) in Winter’s Tale—not doing double duty. This already gives the season an advantage over previous Park summers. The actors can sharpen their skills on the contrast from play to play and director to director; Michael Greif has staged Winter’s Tale and Daniel Sullivan Merchant.
Both productions are uneven, eccentric mixes of the standardized and the quirky. Neither, probably, will be the great Shakespearean experience of your life. Both lapse, intermittently, into one or another imposed assumption about what’s “correct” for Shakespeare, for today’s sensibilities, for the taste of Park audiences. But such agendas weigh down virtually all contemporary Shakespeare stagings; these two, by skilled hands who’ve traveled this road before, at least never wallow in misguided assumptions. You always feel their basic commitment is to the play, not to somebody’s notion of what it’s supposed to be.
In both cases, as a result, the play is served. If you don’t get any deep inner light shed on The Winter’s Tale, you go away having seen The Winter’s Tale. If you exit the Park with the unresolved problems of The Merchant of Venice scratching at your brain, well, no production has ever resolved them; a production that makes you confront them is a success.
Pacino’s Shylock—which I realize is all you really wanted to know about—puts the problem squarely stage center. People have fretted for centuries over how seriously to take Shylock; Pacino’s performance nails the source of their discomfort. Shakespeare’s Shylock is a villain, not a hero, a man thirsty for revenge and unkind to those around him. Shakespeare first gives him strong justifications, both personal and social, for his vindictiveness, then adds the blow of the double robbery. Venice hates Shylock, Antonio spits on him, Lorenzo steals his daughter and his money. Even more startlingly, Shakespeare makes Shylock’s nasty remarks articulate solid truths. Nonetheless, he is a comic bogeyman, in a comedy; he was played so until 1740, when Charles Macklin revealed the role’s dignified side and became a star. By the early 20th century, Shylock was virtually seen as the play’s tragic hero, a concept as far from the text as the crude comic stereotype that Macklin supplanted.
Pacino squeezes these contradictory readings into one: His Shylock is a vaudeville ethnic caricature who is also a tragic hero, not a rich, powerful conniver but a stooped, whiny, small-timer whom it’s easier to imagine keeping a mom-and-pop corner store than floating a loan for three thousand ducats. Though a born loser, like many earlier Pacino characters, he has a lion’s heart, with claws to match. Under the helpless, bespectacled cartoon, Pacino unveils the implacable fury. The wearily dogged, buzzsaw monotone in which he repeats, “I will have my bond” in the trial scene is likely to slither through a lot of theatergoers’ memories in years to come.
Sullivan’s staging surrounds Pacino with a businesslike world of busy-ness, itself often enclosed by the openwork teller’s cages of Mark Wendland’s metallic set, a maze of concentric barriers. People cross and recross the stage, bound nowhere we know about. Byron Jennings’s grave, gray, guilt-raddled Antonio is, like Shylock, among the few still points in this hectic Venice. Another, for a brief moment, is Max Wright’s doting, doddering Prince of Aragon. Instead of the customary glittering sophisticate, Lily Rabe makes Portia, intriguingly, a rawboned, sheltered, country heiress, nicely matched to Hamish Linklater’s charmingly gawky Bassanio, and ably shepherded by Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s crisp Nerissa.
Not everyone comes off so well: The Lorenzo-Jessica relationship, a much-disputed area of the text, registers as blurry; Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s Launcelot Gobbo seems to be trying out a string of unrelated notions. But the major scenes (including a creepy silent depiction of Shylock’s forced baptism) rise up to put the play’s big, troubling questions firmly before you, with Pacino’s Shylock heading the list.
Michael Greif’s Winter’s Tale seems altogether sunnier even at its darkest, in part because under his guidance, seemingly, the same actors who grasp specifics for Sullivan tend to generalize. Jesse L. Martin makes Gratiano, in Merchant, a distinct individual; his Polixenes here is just a nice guy with a crown and a quick temper. Jean-Baptiste’s Polina spouts great rhetoric, but her love for both her husband and her queen feels rhetorical, too. Emond’s gracious, stately Hermione seems to be aiming for statue-dom, while Linklater’s Autolycus struggles to milk laughs from hangdog looks and ambling around in his skivvies. Wendland’s set, too, seems unpurposive, cluttered with ineffective effects.
Two actors fare better: Santiago-Hudson, slowly building and banking the fires of Leontes’s jealousy, reaches a gripping peak in the oracle scene, then trumps it with his sober remorse in the last act. And as Camillo, the lord who betrays both kings’ unjust commands, Jennings creates a figure wholly distinct from his queasy Antonio, with a blend of dash and toughness that actually resembles, unlike most modern performances of such roles, Shakespeare’s idea of a noble courtier. Their force supplies the chilling effect that, even in a summertime park, Winter’s Tale needs.