For many people, the whole point of seeing “The Merchant of Venice” on Broadway will be just to see Al Pacino act in one of the most well-known Shakespearean roles.
In this play, transferred from “Shakespeare in the Park” to the Broadhurst Theater, Al Pacino stars as Shylock, a Jewish moneylender.
Shakespeare’s stories can be confusing at times, but this one was fairly simple to understand: Antonio (Byron Jennings), a merchant, asks Shylock for money so he can pay the way for his friend Bassiano’s (David Harbour) wooing of an heiress, Portia (Lily Rabe, in a breakout performance). Shylock says that Antonio must pay him back a “pound of flesh” if he cannot repay his debts.
When Antonio’s money fails and he cannot repay Shylock, he is taken to court. Portia disguises herself as a judge and saves Antonio’s life, instead putting the crime on Shylock, who must now be converted to Christianity.
This play is often billed as a comedy, and the director, Daniel Sullivan, wasn’t afraid to play up the comedic elements. Most scenes involving Portia, even the pivotal court scene, were tinged with humor.
Portia’s deceased father left behind a puzzle that had to be solved before anyone could marry his daughter. Many had tried to crack it, but all had failed.
The Prince of Morocco, played with over-the-top gusto by Isaiah Johnson, is in an especially humorous scene involving three caskets, one of which must be selected and holds the person who must then marry Portia. Launcelot Gobbo, Shylock’s servant, portrayed by Tony-nominee Christopher Fitzgerald, also provides some comic relief.
The story is also a romance. First, there is the love between Antonio and Bassiano, which leads Antonio to take out his loan at the beginning of the play.
There is also the main romance between Bassiano and Portia along with a romance between Portia’s servant Nerissa (Marsha Stephanie Blake) and Gratiano (Jesse L. Martin), Bassiano’s friend.
Yet another romance is the secret one between Shylock’s daughter, Jessica (Heather Lind), and another one of Bassiano’s friends, Lorenzo (Seth Numrich).
Each actor is suited to their character perfectly. This requires a very strong cast, considering they are all inevitably going to be compared to Pacino.
Even though Shylock would usually be considered a supporting character, Pacino dominates the play, making the audience notice as soon as he is on the stage. When he first walked on stage, people in the crowd could be heard whispering, “It’s him!” However, he never let his star power overshadow his cast-mates. He is an excellent actor and even though this is his third time playing this role, he doesn’t go into it halfheartedly.
The set, designed by Mark Wendland, consists of revolving bars and cages that are twisted on stage to resemble everything from a prison to a large mansion.
The director sets this play in the 19th century, with lovely costumes by Jess Goldstein. Composed by Dan Moses Schreier, the music is both eerie and lovely, but never outweighs the play.
Anyone who likes Shakespeare and fine acting will enjoy this play, as will anyone who is a fan of Al Pacino.
People shouldn’t go just for Pacino’s performance or to enjoy a major Shakespeare play, it isthe combination of the two that makes it worth the trip to the theater.
Mary Kate Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.