Shakespeare in the Park, presented by the Public Theater, on Sunday, June 13.
A little more than a decade ago, I saw the Royal National Theatre production of The Merchant of Venice starring Henry Goodman, directed by Trevor Nunn, and it stunned me. The first time I saw it (and I saw it multiple times, queuing outside in the cold damp London weather for the privilege of buying a ticket that guaranteed me only a spot to stand in the back of the theatre), even after the cast members took their final bows and the house lights came on, I sat riveted in my seat, too overwhelmed to move. I wrote pages upon pages about the experience in my journal (which was, in many ways, the forerunner to this blog), and I babbled to anyone who would listen about how Goodman delivered some of Shylock’s trickier lines and how Nunn handled several crucial scenes.
That powerful production changed how I think about The Merchant of Venice specifically and theatrical interpretation in general: how you can find the open spots in a text and stretch the work to find new truths. Ironically, because it looms so large in my memory and holds such a special place in my heart, that production also makes me skeptical of Merchant productions that don’t handle the play’s thornier problems in the same generous manner—which is, of course, a long-winded way of saying that I’m not sure how fair I can be to the new Shakespeare in the Park Merchant, a production that intrigues, puzzles, and frustrates me. The fact that it is still very early in its run—still in previews—doesn’t help, no doubt. It’s hard to know whether the rough spots will be ironed out eventually or whether they’ll remain there, uneven and distracting. That being said, though, I don’t think all the parts fit together here, and I have significant misgivings about Al Pacino’s portrayal of Shylock. Fair or not, of this I’m sure: This production would not have motivated nineteen-year-old me to see it three times.