I missed the Public’s production of Merchant in the Park last summer, and so was happy for an unexpected chance to see it last weekend on Broadway. I’d heard various responses to Al Pacino as Shylock, and to how director Daniel Sullivan handled the play’s notorious anti-Semitism. But I was surprised by how powerful and moving I found the production, and how much it spoke to the “othering” of Jews in ways that have uneasy contemporary resonances.

I’m not a Shakespeare scholar, but I’ve seen various productions of the play over the years that use different tactics to handle the representation of Shylock and the pound of flesh he intends to exact from Antonio, the Italian merchant whose fortunes have taken a temporary turn for the worst, when he can’t repay his loan.

Sullivan’s production sets the action in an Edwardian-era Italy designed to appear stark and rather foreboding, with the men costumed in mostly dark costumes, and only Portia, back home in Belmont, dressed in flashes of light or vivid color. Fences provide the dominating stage image, as concentric circles of railings and slatted iron enclosures are wheeled in various loops around the stage to create shifting scene locales.

The production’s striking opening image uses these boundaries to establish visually the exclusion of Jews from Venice’s financial center. A buzzing hive of men work the floor of the stock market, using long sticks to push beads across the rails of black abacuses set above their heads like the board of a modern-day financial center. A wrought-iron black fence encircles their activity, outside of which sits a young Jewish boy, watching wistfully, his inexorable exclusion palpable.

“Jewish,” in Sullivan’s production, means Orthodox. The young boy wears payot, the earlocks that indicate religious observance, and so do most of the older Jewish men who work with Shylock and haunt the Venice scene. The fringe of the tzitzis that the Torah commands men to wear peaks out from under their suit coats, and in a later scene, when Shylock visits Antonio in jail, he and a comrade both wear tallit, the blue and white fringed prayer shawl, over their jackets.

Judaism, then, is presented from the outset as a religious and ethnic identity that marks these men as outsiders, different from and othered by the culture that so emphatically excludes them. These images underscore that Shylock, though a usurer—a kind of loan shark—isn’t part of Venetian commerce or finance, but works on a shadow market to which Antonio is forced to appeal to secure the 3,000 ducats he wants to give his friend Bassanio to woo Portia.

Shylock’s ire, which Pacino plays so well in this production, stems from his resentment at being placed so squarely outside the dominant law. His stubborn insistence that he exact his pound of flesh as payment when Antonio is unable to fulfill the terms of his loan here reads as fueled by Shylock’s anger at the anti-Semitism that refuses him access to the law for his own defense. He’s righteous in his demand to be included as a full human being. He attracts audience sympathy because Sullivan and the other actors seem to underline every moment Jews are called “dog” or “cur” and by the way Antonio and other characters spit “Jew” as a kind of curse throughout the production. Shylock’s bitterness at being so othered, and his determination to avenge himself and his tribe, seems only rational in the hateful environment the production depicts.

Although a bit of the Borscht Belt haunts Pacino’s performance, he also brings depth and nuance to Shylock’s plight. He plays him as intelligent and strong, full of irony and reason, determined to exact his revenge against not just Antonio (Byron Jennings) but the injustices of a racist system whose exclusions he can no longer bear. Pacino empowers the stereotype of the avaricious Jew, filling it out, historicizing it, and making it empathetic and realistic. He brings a bit of what I read as modern-day New York Jewishness to his bearing and his inflections. That is, even in the Edwardian moment in which Sullivan sets his production, I doubt that Jews spoke with the Tevye-like upward inflections and fake-humble shrugs to which Pacino sometimes resorts to signal Shylock’s ethnic predilections. But the performance never crosses the line into broad caricature, and Pacino’s version of Shylock’s righteous rage keeps him human and sympathetic, even as he sharpens his knife and approaches Antonio’s bared breast to cut his pound of flesh.

The trial scene manages to heighten the moment’s suspense, even as most spectators will know how it ends. Antonio’s arms are strapped to a large wooden chair, and Shylock circles him with his knife, debating where to make his incision. But Pacino and Sullivan hint at Shylock’s hesitation, as he, along with the disguised Portia, who comes to Antonio and Bassanio’s rescue to argue their case, seems to search for a way out even as he purposefully poises his knife. Pacino plays Shylock as determined to make his point, rather than actually to take the pound of useless flesh, but the scene is chilling in its urgency and implicit violence. The cut Shylock would make against Antonio’s flesh comes to embody the violence done to him as a Jew by the anti-Semitism Antonio represents.

The disguised Portia (played beautifully by Lily Rabe, with a strength and composure that makes her a worthy adversary for Pacino’s Shylock) deviously twists the letter of the law under which Shylock would see himself included and to which he must finally bow. Though he’s owed a pound of Antonio’s flesh, in her legalist reading of the bond, he can draw no blood, which makes it impossible for Shylock to exact his revenge. Instead, the law is turned once more against him, as Portia-as-lawyer heaps on punishments, taking away Shylock’s wealth, giving half to the state and the other half to his daughter, Jessica (Heather Lind), who’s converted to Christianity to marry Lorenzo (Thomas Michael Hammond).

Shylock, too, is forced to convert as part of his sentence and Sullivan stages a wordless, wrenching baptism scene that represents the man’s ultimate humiliation. Shylock is dragged to the baptismal font—a small pool of water uncovered upstage right—where a priest presides over his conversion. A henchman dunks Shylock three times, drenching his payot and his white shirt, before tossing him out of the water. Shaking himself off, Pacino defiantly retrieves Shylock’s yarmulke, which his brute handlers had coldly tossed aside. Standing center stage, he holds the kippah over his head with both hands, like a crown, and then places it firmly back in place. Though forced to bow to laws that can only enslave and never serve him, Pacino broadcasts Shylock’s angry resistance.

The day I saw the production (February 5, 2011), much of the audience applauded as Pacino settled the yarmulke back on his head. I had the sense that this New York-based production was playing to the New York Jewish community, signaled from the stage by Pacino’s inflections and bearing and from the audience by its audible approval of Shylock’s disregard for his enforced religious conversion. The moment was one of those jolts out of time that sometimes happen in the theatre, when you know spectators are responding from their own historical location to an action placed in a fictional past that resonates strongly into the present.

Likewise, Portia’s legal machinations to force Shylock to forego his bond also reverberated with current events. When Portia interdicts Shylock from extracting Antonio’s blood, the historical allegation of “blood libel” against the Jews resonates inescapably. This accusation falsely claims that Jews murder Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals. Those two words were tossed back into public discourse last January by Sarah Palin, when she said “journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn” after congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (who happens to be Jewish) was shot in the head in Tucson, allegedly by Jared Loughner. Palin’s own rhetoric of violence–her talk of “reloading” and the map she drew of various US districts with targets circled as if within a rifle sight—seemed to encourage the kind of vigilantism Loughner enacted, but her use of the term “blood libel” had distinct anti-Semitic overtones that commentators noted with dismay.

I saw Merchant after Giffords’ tragic shooting and the Palin debacle. When Portia foils the execution of Shylock’s bond by prohibiting the spilling of Christian blood by a Jew, the resonance with the myth of blood libel and how it continues to insinuate itself into contemporary political discourse felt unavoidable and chilling.

Merchant of Venice is an oddly hybrid Shakespeare play, a comedy at Shylock’s expense which, translated into a contemporary idiom, has to play as a tragedy of anti-Semitism and not just as a play “about” a Jew. But once Shylock is vanquished, he and the other Jews disappear from the story.In Sullivan’s production, too, after the horrific and effective baptism scene, we don’t see Pacino again until the curtain call, when he appears wearing a short robe that replaces his drenched costume.

And so, after Shylock’s rebellious exit, the play proceeds as usual. Antonio and Bassanio (David Harbour) return to Belmont and Portia’s estate, where they finish out the mistaken identity plot, as Bassanio and Gratiano (David Aaron Baker) realize that Portia and her maid Nerissa (Marsha Stephanie Blake) had come to court disguised as the lawyer and his clerk. The two romantic couples play out the commotion over the abandonment of their respective wedding rings. The tonal dissonance—all of the flirtatious heterosexual banter after the violence and ugliness of the baptism scene—is difficult to stomach.

But that seems part of the production’s argument. Under the veneer of Venetian (and contemporary European and US) propriety, Sullivan suggests, courses a vein of racism that’s yet to be fully addressed or staunched. That the production breaks so sharply in two—the rigors of the city’s financial maneuverings and its anti-Semitism versus the superficial comedy of the country’s domestic plots—seems part of Sullivan’s design. The trivialities of the contest for Portia’s hand and of Portia’s and Nerissa’s anger over Bassanio and Gratiano giving up their wedding rings so quickly, sit uneasily alongside the darkness of Shylock’s devastation. After the baptism, when the production returns to Portia’s court, it seems intentionally difficult to take the lovers’ quarrels seriously.

Still, because Rabe is terrific as Portia, those moments take on weight and import. She consistently plays Portia’s strength and intelligence. Various silly suitors come to try to correctly choose the casket that contains her picture, which according to her dead father’s will, then bestows the right to marry her. As she watches the hapless would-be husbands make their mistakes, Rabe plays Portia with a wry knowingness, a contemporary feminist gilding of the character that matches how Pacino signals Shylock’s ongoing resonances by adopting hints of modern performances of Jewishness.Although Portia is already one of Shakespeare’s most interesting female characters, Rabe is exceptionally good in the role, cutting a striking, sharply drawn figure of a woman who’s strong and nimble, despite the ridiculous contest for her hand in marriage.

The beautiful production, with a minimalist, evocative set designed by Mark Wendland, retains a compelling visual appeal throughout. Those concentric, ever-circling fences create swirling images of both movement and confinement as they roll back and forth to open up and then contain stage space and to suggest the market, the court, and Shylock’s offices. Sullivan moves a wrought-iron spiral staircase fluidly around the stage to bring his pictures height and depth. He often poses Portia on its stairs, to show off her colorful costumes (beautifully designed by Jess Goldstein and elegantly worn by Rabe) and to highlight her rather supercilious distance from her ineffectual suitors. The back stage wall is bare and visible throughout, offering a canvas on which light (designed by Kenneth Posner) plays to change the scene and the mood.

The well of water that opens later in the play, in which Jessica and Lorenzo wade and in which Shylock is baptized, effectively reminds us of these characters’ palpable humanness. Using something as elemental as water on stage calls attention to the presence of the actors underneath their characters. When Jessica walks barefoot out of the water, she leaves puddles behind as she moves off. Shylock’s wet shirt clings to Pacino’s chest as he wrenches himself from his unwanted baptism, revealing his vulnerability and his strength. When the young Jewish boy rushes to his aid, he slips and falls in the water collecting around the older man.

The water’s presence and its unpredictable effects provide a nice companion to the production’s ever-changing yet inflexible metal fences. It rushes in where the Jews can’t go, but doesn’t, finally, bend those bars far enough to let them through.

The Feminist Spectator

Merchant of VeniceBroadhurst Theatre, closes February 20, 2011.

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