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Shakespeare in the Park: The Winter's Tale The Merchant of Venice

Review by Tulis McCall
(14 Jul 2010)

There are few delights equal to an evening at the Delacorte Theatre watching good actors do what they do best while surrounded and supported by a technical design team and staff that makes the whole event seamless. If you are lucky enough to be there on a summer night that is not 90 degrees so much the better. If you are even luckier you will get a theatre experience that will allow you to lose sight of the 5th Avenue apartments. It is a bit of Heaven.

Such was my luck, and grateful am I. These are two fascinating evenings with plenty of the good stuff on hand.

First of all, the fact that this is a Summer Repertoire is thrilling. With the exception of Al Pacino (Shylock), Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Leontes) and Lily Rabe (Portia) all the actors have featured roles in each play. This offers them the opportunity to strut their stuff in the best sense of the phrase. And it gives us a rounded opportunity to watch them, for what may appear a lack luster performance in one play, becomes a fault one would lay at the feet of the director when compared with a terrific showing in the opposite play.

I almost wish you could combine the two plays, because they were uneven and thrilling at the same time.

The Winter's Tale is a tale of some magnitude. As with both plays, the established negative energy begins at the very top of the actor's appearance. In Winter's Tale, Leontes, King of Sicilia, is in a kafuffle because he suspects his wife Hermione (Linda Emond) of being unfaithful to him with his friend Polixenes (Jesse L. Martin ), King of Bohemia. The result is banishment, punishment and redemption.

When Polixenes escapes death through the intercession of Leontes' aide Camillo (Byron Jennings) Leontes assumes the worst. He jails his wife, banishes her newborn child, and ignores both the specific warning of Paulina (Marianne Jean-Babtiste) as well the Oracle of Apollo who pronounces judgment against him. In the pronouncement of the Oracle is also the key to unraveling the King's mistakes.

Hence the second act takes place in Bohemia where we are treated to a kinder gentler life and story line. Leontes child Perdita (Heather Lind) was saved by a shepherd (Max Wright) and is alive, and well, and gorgeous. So too is Polixenes' son Florizel (François Battiste) who falls for the maid. When Polixines discovers his son is betrothed to a commoner, Camillo - ever the guy with a quick exit solution - sends the sad young couple back to Sicilia to seek shelter from Leontes with the hope that Polixenes will follow, the two Kings will be reconciled, and all will be well. All happens according to plan with the added attraction of Perdita's identity uncovered and the restoration of Hermione to her King.

Talk about convoluted!

In the more familiar Merchant of Venice, Bassanio (Hamish Linklater) needs funds to woo Portia, a maid of means whose father has left her a fortune and permission to marry any man who successfully unravels the riddle of the three chests. Bassanio's friend Antonio (Byron Jennings) has no cash but is willing to risk his own reputation by means of a loan. Thus enters Shylock who is a usurer, meaning that he charges for lending money - a thing frowned upon by the elite unless they happened to need some equity. Like Leontes - Shylock enters angry. On this particular day he has had it up to here with being treated like trash simply because he is a Jew. The possibility of taking advantage of Antonio, should his expected fortunes not return from sea, completely engages Shylock. He demands as security a pound of flesh, the exact source to be determined at another date by Shylock. Antonio accepts the conditions. The money is secured.

Bassanio successfully woos Portia, but things go badly for Antonio. When his fortunes do not come into port he is left at the mercy of Shylock who is short on that quality. As the trial begins, Shylock pleads his case for his pound of flesh - Antonio's heart to be precise. Portia follows Bassanio to court. Disguised as a man, she defeats Shylock. His punishment is to be baptized, thus making him an outcast in any religious circle.

These are gargantuan tales of human love, folly, arrogance and revenge. At a little over three hours each, they also remind us of a time when audiences had longer attention spans and less instant gratification on a daily basis. The plots take ages to spin out, because once the tale is revealed the conclusion is not far behind. So it is in the telling of the tale that we must be engaged, encouraged and fussed over. Neither play succeeds completely in this regard. And it is the main characters in each that seem to be the impediment.

As Leontes, Mr. Santiago-Hudson was a trifle dull. Leontes busts out of the gate with jealousy and we should be saddling up fast. In this case I found myself plodding along behind him figuring I would catch up and that Leontes fire in the belly would eventually be revealed. It never was, although he fared batter in the second act when he was in a state of repentance and mourning. The supporting cast sparkled under the leadership of Marianne Jean-Baptiste whose gives "lioness" a new meaning. She possesses a ferocity and elegance that is dazzling. Byron Jennings was clear and steady in the pivotal role of Camillo, a man who modifies his behavior but never alters his allegiance.

As Shylock, Pacino seems to be in a world all his own. He shuffles, mumbles, rages and takes on Shakespeare's meter (although Shylock's text is both prose and iambic pentameter) like a man who has just has his jaw unwired and is a little unsteady. The words are like marbles he explores before spitting them out. A little of this goes a long way, and this style combined with Shylock's never wavering rage leaves us feeling perplexed more than anything else. Perplexed as in "What the heck WAS that?"

On the other hand, Lily Rabe, is a treasure. She is strong, passionate, smart and many layered. She listens and speaks with her entire body. This is not text for her, this is a life essence with which she fills an entire canvas. She is supremely aided by Marianne Jean-Baptiste who gives another glowing, if somewhat briefer, performance as Nerissa. Byron Jennings' Antonio is another terric performance. He is a man of limited vision and honest business sense. It is his sin of negligence in past treatment of a Jew that gets him into a pickle, and the reality of it simply astonishes him.

For comic effect, for there are always clowns, Winter's Tale is the odds on favorite because the comedy is laid out like stones on a path. For whatever reason, however, it has been neglected or overblown at every turn and leaves a stale taste.

Surprisingly it is the comedy in Merchant that succeeds in every way. Max Wright is brilliant as the Prince of Arragon who dallies over the choice of one of Portia's mystery chests. Times appears to slow down as this brilliant master actor spins his monologue into pure gold. As well, the text has been mined for any moment that will shed light in this dark take - including a fine and surprising performance by Jesse L. Martin as Graziano.

So - a mixed bag of tricks laid out on a breathtaking set by Mark Wendland that folds, and disappears, and transforms and enchants. It is magic of the best sort that has a life of its own even without an actor present. It is the platform under the stars that supports this gift of theatre in New York, not to mention the traffic of the night dwelling creatures who generously share their home with us bi-peds during the lush green time.

(Tulis McCall)

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