Two Shakespeare classics, in repertory, brilliantly done by the Public
BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE
“The Merchant of Venice” and “The Winter’s Tale” are problematic plays. Issues of tone, complexity of plot, and twisted logic are just the beginning for any director tacking them. Then there are the conceptual challenges of squaring a 16th century political consciousness with that of a 21st century audience.
Happily, directors Daniel Sullivan (“Merchant”) and Michael Greif (“Tale”) haven’t tried to solve these problems. Instead, they rely on the plays as written, trusting their internal logic and Shakespeare’s language and storytelling, allowing them simply to speak for themselves without modern commentary. Inferences and insights relevant to contemporary sensibilities, if any, are left to audience members to draw. The results are two deeply felt, crowd-pleasing, and engrossing productions among the most satisfying mountings of these plays I have yet seen.
The productions are running in repertory at Central Park’s Delacorte and seeing them nearly back-to-back, with one night intervening, is about as close as it gets to Shakespearean Nirvana.
It makes sense to see them together. They are both lyrical and dark, trading in high romance and low comedy, replete with Shakespearean staples of disguise, surprise, and tragic comeuppance. In lesser productions, these plays are uneven, as they shift gears awkwardly between different tones and plots, yet here there is fluidity and absolute clarity throughout that illuminate the stories and characters wonderfully. Amazing what happens when a director trusts the material.
Daniel Sullivan’s “Merchant” concentrates the essential, sometimes contradictory human truths in each of the characters. Shylock, a moneylender, is despised for his profession and for being a Jew. Yet, in Venice at the time Shakespeare was writing, his was one of the few professions open to Jews. That, of course, doesn’t spare him the disdain of Christians who require, but resent paying for, his services. Thus, when Antonio seeks a loan to allow his friend Bassanio to court the young Portia, Shylock demands a pound of flesh as bond a kind of revenge for the cruelty he has suffered.
Bassanio wins the hand of Portia through solving a complex riddle devised by her dead father, but must return to Venice to save Antonio, whose businesses have failed and must now forfeit his flesh. Portia and her waiting woman Nerissa, disguised as men, win Antonio’s case, denigrating Shylock in the process. Meanwhile Shylock’s daughter has run off to marry Lorenzo, a friend of Bassanio’s, and become a Christian. This is hardly the stuff of comedy, and yet in the subplots, changed identities, losses, and bantering, there is the comedy of human shortcomings that is wry and brittle.
Sullivan evokes all of this in his direction. Al Pacino as Shylock is a masterful portrait of rage at oppression, resignation at his lot, and obsession with revenge. His portrayal is an organic and integrated performance that arouses both anger and sympathy. At once, he is narrow and hateful, but also clearly tragic. It’s impossible not to loathe his rejection of his daughter, and yet one’s heart breaks at the torture of his forced baptism.
Pacino’s is not the only superlative performance in this piece. Byron Jennings as Antonio, Shylock’s foil, conveys the wide range of love and disdain at his character’s core. Hamish Linklater is callous and romantic yet fully grounded in integrity as Bassanio. Lily Rabe is passionate and intelligent as Portia, combining a girl’s romantic feelings with a mature woman’s rational perspective.
In short, there isn’t a performance in this play that doesn’t fully explore the contradictory and inconsistent nature of humans, and that is what makes this production so successful.
Michael Greif’s direction of “Tale” similarly takes the play at face value. This is a romance, a fable designed as a cautionary tale about rashness and ego two themes that appear over and over in Shakespeare.
Leontes, the king of Sicilia, comes to suspect that his closest lifelong friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia, has had an affair with his wife, Hermione. Leontes puts Hermione on trial, and even though the evidence from testimony and the Oracle say Hermione is chaste, the vengeful husband will not believe.
Only after Hermione appears to have died does Leontes come to realize his mistake. In fact, Paulina, a noble in the king’s house and Hermione’s companion, hides her for 16 years, leaving Leontes alone to deal with his son’s death and his grief at having forced his daughter, Perdita, to be left to chance in the wild.
The scene shifts to Bohemia, where Perdita, having been raised by humble shepherds, has fallen in love with Polixenes’ son Florizel, only to find their romance thwarted. How this is all made right is the stuff of fable, and woe to anyone who tries to make it logical.
Sullivan has freely entered into the romance, so no questions need be asked. The buoyancy and juxtaposition of delicious lightness and brooding darkness in the production provide a full and rich emotional journey. Ruben Santiago-Hudson is a multi-faceted Leontes, and Jesse L. Martin is a subtle and richly played Polixenes. Linda Emond is outstanding as Hermione, but it is Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s Paulina who is the play’s conscience and the plot’s prime mover. Jean-Baptiste finds depths of feeling that could only leave the insensate unmoved.
The comics are equally good. Jesse Tyler Ferguson is brilliant as the Clown; he and his shepherd father, played by Max Wright, provide the evening with levity and innocent sweetness. Linklater, one of the finest comic actors working today, is used to full effect as Autolycus, a rogue once in service to Florizel.
This is the first time the Public has presented plays in repertory in 40 years, according to the production notes; hopefully, the success here will encourage more of this. Shakespeare in the Park is a unique and wonderful experience every year no matter what is playing. This year, thanks to these superlative productions, the pleasure is even greater.