I recognize the great good luck of my geography. I live in a remarkable place: New York City! True I had my purse lifted fairly recently on its streets and there are other minor urban inconveniences, but name me another locale where I could twice in the space of a few months see estimable performances of “The Merchant of Venice” with Academy Award winning actors, Al Pacino and F. Murray Abraham. And I saw the Pacino performance free, outdoors free in the summer beauty of Central Park. The Public Theater holds a daily “virtual” lottery and awards pairs of tickets to lucky email participants. My daughter was one such winner!
Two remarkably different interpretations of the play: Al Pacino was the traditional hardhearted, heavily accented usurer detested by the Christian borrowers who needed his money. A forced baptism scene that I found excruciating was added in this production. I could have done without that. Otherwise the actors had me from the very first wonderful words and I ached for Shylock.
F. Murray Abraham, this week in this second production, hammed (dare I use the word?) it up in a cell-phoned, clever modernistic stock exchange atmosphere. He was a tough and villainous Shylock, more clown than villain but his opponents were certainly not gentlemen either. Getting his pound of flesh in figurative payback was far more important to him than his ducats; he required compensation for all the insults he’d suffered. Such a great play with its glorious language does honor in each of the productions. I left the theater wondering about Portia, a very smart cookie in any interpretation. Shakespeare could write all kinds of women, but that he, a seventeenth century man who in his will left his wife his second best bed, could be so generous in his conception of an intelligent youngwoman, is impressive.
Of course, Portia ended up married to a ne’er do well.