AFTER A SEVEN-YEAR ABSENCE THE LEGENDARY STAR MAKES A TRIUMPHANT RETURN TO BROADWAY
By HENRY EDWARDS
After a week's delay, Dan Sullivan’s production of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” co-starring Al Pacino as the despised money lender Shylock and Lily Rabe as the heiress Portia, held its re-scheduled official opening night at the Broadhurst Theatre on Nov. 13.
The press opening had been delayed so that Rabe could attend to the illness of her mother, actress Jill Clayburgh, who subsequently succumbed to leukemia.
“Merchant” was greeted with rave reviews with critics heaping praise on the acting, direction and set design.
The production arrives on Broadway following a summer run as one of the two attractions featured in The Public Theater’s annual free Shakespeare in the Park festival held outdoors in the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park.
Coincidentally, a production of “Merchant,” starring George C. Scott as Shylock, launched the Delacorte in 1962.
Title character Antonio (Byron Jennings) sets the play in motion by agreeing to lend 3,000 ducats to his friend Bassanio (David Harbour) in order to assist him in his pursuit of the wealthy and beautiful Portia (Rabe). Since Antonio's own money is tied up in business ventures that depend on the safe return of his ships from sea, he borrows the money from the Jewish moneylender Shylock (Pacino) even though he previously insulted Shylock for his high rates of interest. Shylock lends the money on the condition that the failure to repay it on the agreed date will entitle him literally to a pound of Antonio's flesh.
Needless to say, the character of Shylock ranks as one of Shakespeare’s most difficult and complex creations. Although he is the villain of play, starting in the 19th century, Shylock began to be viewed sympathetically as a man who had been treated without dignity and respect, and had been denied his equal rights, a view reinforced by Shylock's immortal speech which begins “Hath not a Jew eyes? ... If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
Reflecting on the character, Pacino has said, “I see him as more sinned against than sinning. When I chart the history of this character, when I go into his life and his conditions, that’s what I come away with.”
Actors love to sink their teeth into this role, and in addition to Pacino, who previously portrayed Shylock in Michael Radford’s 2004 film adaptation, Sir John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Patrick Stewart, Dustin Hoffman and F. Murray Abraham, among others, have tackled the role.
Here is what some of the critics had to say about Pacino’s interpretation:
Joe Dziemianowicz (Daily News): “Pacino makes it clear that Shylock is an outsider, sinned against and sinning, who's raging from wounds. .. He's an actor known for big whoo-ha-sized portraits, but Pacino is a study in control on stage. He makes his shaggy Shylock dynamic and believable. He's slightly eccentric, always compelling, right down to deliberate a singsongy cadence that seems intended to irritate.”
Terry Teachout (Wall Street Journal): “Mr. Pacino's performance, in which he plays Shylock as an old-fashioned ‘stage Jew’ driven to the edge of madness by his lust for revenge, is no stunt. He is a veteran stage actor who knows how to nail every line to the auditorium's back wall, and even if you think he's flirting with caricature—which he is—you'll find the results enthralling. I don't know whether Mr. Pacino has toughened up his interpretation since I last saw it or whether I've gotten onto his wavelength, but I found him entirely believable this time. The look of demented ecstasy on his face as he takes knife in hand to hack a pound of flesh out of the chest of Antonio is the stuff bad dreams are made on.”
Linda Winer (Newsday): "People may be clawing their way into ‘The Merchant of Venice’ to look deep into the thousand-year-old eyes of Al Pacino's harrowing, yet beautifully restrained Shylock on Broadway. And rightly so.”
Mark Kennedy (Associated Press): Pacino manages to play the anti-Semitic characteristics of the hated Jewish money-lender without inhibition, and yet also communicate the burning anger welling up as the result of a lifetime of Christian contempt. It is a terrific, fierce performance.”
"Merchant" is the highest grossing play on Broadway at the moment. The limited engagement is currently scheduled to close on Jan. 9, 2011.