What News On the Rialto? Merchant of Venice in the Park


It’s the hottest day of the year, and just beginning to sprinkle. A gray haired lady, not more than five feet tall, elbows you hard to get through Gate Three before you do. Once you finally make it to your seat, you find it rather hard on the derriere, and wonder if your body will survive the next three hours. On your left, is a family enjoying a highly odiferous meal laced with plenty of garlic. Seated directly above you, some sort of reunion is apparently taking place, with lots of shouted greetings, and plenty of beer.

In the aisle next to you, a spectacularly unattractive man in a Barbara Bush white wig, sensible pumps, and itchy looking tweed skirt loudly proclaims how rude it is for everyone to keep staring at him.

On stage, there’s a series of black iron structures, done largely in concentric circles. An announcement is made, informing us that this is Queens day, and that Queens is the greatest borough in New York. Activity is building on the set, with men arriving in Edwardian suits. They appear to be commodities brokers, intent on looking at a board that is being adjusted by hand; there’s also a ticker tape machine, and a bell, in evidence.

A hush falls over the crowd, and it’s quiet, except for the loud quacking of nearby ducks, and a helicopter which buzzes directly overhead.

Congratulations! You’ve made it to Shakespeare In The Park, that venerable old New York theater institution. The first play to be presented here, in 1962, was the very one we’re seeing tonight, The Merchant Of Venice. It starred George C. Scott as Shylock, and James Earl Jones as the Prince of Morocco. Joe Papp did his best to still his critics by informing the world that he himself was Jewish, ne Papirofsky, so forget all this uproar about the play being anti-Semitic. I’m here to tell you that it really, really is, but we shall take up this matter anon.

Let’s cut to Al Pacino as Shylock. Unbeknownst to many, he has long been a Shakespearean actor of note, and he has the chops for this most difficult role. He manages to infuse the character with both humor and pathos, and easily glides in and out of the dauntingly familiar “Hath not a Jew eyes?” monologue. I do feel there’s a marked familiarity of his cadence in this part, which brings to mind his portrayal of both Roy Cohn and King Herod. But who can argue with success?

Lily Rabe is destined for stardom, and has the pedigree to prove it. The daughter of playwright David Rabe and actress Jill Clayburgh, she is lovely, confident, and in the role of Portia, reminds me a little of Katharine Hepburn. Her carriage is perfect, and in her bright scarlet dress, she immediately takes focus from all around her. I especially enjoyed her scenes with Marianne Jean-Baptiste, whose performance as Nerissa truly sparkled.

Likewise, Jesse L. Martin (on right, above, with Hamish Linklater) turns the role of supporting character Gratiano into a star turn. If there truly is a God, then Martin can sing, too, and should be snapped up for the role of Sportin’ Life in the Audra McDonald production of  Porgy and Bess, for which many of us have long been praying.

Nyambi Nyambi is an actor who’s new to me, but the fact that he very nearly steals the show in his scene as the Prince of Morocco says it all. He is so witty and entertaining in his one flashy appearance, that he exits to spontaneous applause.

The audience also especially enjoyed Jesse Tyler Ferguson (left), of the hit TV show Modern Family. A skilled comic actor, Ferguson makes the treacherous clown Launcelot Gobbo almost palatable.

It’s great fun to hear all those familiar homilies in context. So that’s where we get “love is blind.” And “All that glisters (not glitters) is not gold.” But now, we must come to the problem at hand, and I don’t mean the fact that this production seems to imply that Antonio’s love for Bassanio dare not speak its name.

Of course, we must take Shakespeare’s plays in the context of the time. Let’s face it, the merry romp that is The Taming Of The Shrew is really about spousal abuse. But if I hear one more interpretation of “what Shakespeare really meant” when he created Shylock, I may, as the show folk say, toss my cookies. The play is deeply anti-Semitic, and I question whether or not those I heard heartily laughing at the huge, ugly head with its prominently hooked nose and payes, weren’t the same sort of people who didn’t get that Archie Bunker was really a bigot. As the head was paraded through the street with loud jeers, as the jokes about “the Jew” piled up, and as much of the audience laughed with apparent ease, I felt myself getting increasingly uncomfortable.

Did you know that there’s a scene in Henry V where the title character orders the massacre of the French soldiers he’s holding prisoner? Probably not. That’s usually cut, because modern audiences would find such conduct appalling, especially in a hero.

Just because we’re watching Shakespeare doesn’t mean we have to act like groundlings. It’s OK to not enjoy everything that’s said and done, and if you don’t understand all of it, that’s OK, too. We’ve come a long way since the Elizabethan age, and there’s no shame in experiencing what was OK then with our current sensibilities. For heaven’s sake, it’s still just theater.

One caveat: there are always people roaming around outside the Delacorte trying to cadge an extra ticket. You will be approached before the show, at intermission, and if you appear to be leaving before the performance is over. Do not give away your ticket stub to these folks. You don’t know who they are, and need I remind you, we live in dangerous times.

The Merchant Of Venice, Delacorte Theater; in repertory with The Winter’s Tale through August 1st.

Photos by Joan Marcus

Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. She is a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, International Association of Theatre Critics, Dance Critics Association, and National Book Critics Circle.

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