An Extraordinary "Merchant of Venice"


Daniel Sullivan's extraordinary version of "The Merchant of Venice" is almost certainly sold out for the remainder of its limited run at New York's Broadhurst Theater, but those of you lucky enough to hold tickets have a treat in store. This somber yet thrilling production is the only truly cohesive version of this notoriously problematic play that I have ever seen.

How good is it? Top-billed Al Pacino gives one of the finest performances of his career--and yet he does not dominate the production. Sullivan's overall vision of a stultified, hypocritical Venetian society, in which hatred is ingrained and all protestations of love and affection merely hot air, reinterprets the story for modern audiences with great effectiveness. The production is designed so that all the scenes--whether set in a Venetian prison, Shylock's counting-house or Portia's villa--appear as a series of cages, and the costumes are funereal except for Portia's (fire-engine red in the first half, mauve-pink in the second). Shylock is by no means a hero in this production, but his vituperative rage is not villainy, but the logical reaction to a life filled with both personal and societal oppression. Sullivan includes a wordless scene after the trial, depicting Shylock's forcible baptism in the bowels of a Venetian dungeon; the sheer degradation of the scene, and Pacino's outraged dignity in the face of his ultimate humiliation, are things you won't soon forget. After that scene, it is no surprise that the romantic folderol at the end, involving the exchange of rings and vows of fideltiy, comes across as bitter and acrid--the product of a false and cruel society.

With excellent performances throughout--particularly Lily Rabe as Portia and Byron Jennings as Antonio, as well as Pacino--this "Merchant of Venice" seems bound to become one of Broadway's legendary Shakespearian productions.

Miles David Moore