Thursday, July 8, 2010

Theater Review: The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino

Luke Forbes, Dorien Makhloghi, Nyambi Nyambi, Marianne Jean-Baptiste
and Lily Rabe. Photo by Joan Marcus
A Strange Play, Done Well, but Falling Short of Raves for Pacino
By Lauren Yarger
The big name this year in the Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park production of The Merchant of Venice is Al Pacino as Jewish moneylender Shylock.

He played the part to critical acclaim in the 2004 film and he is, after all, Al Pacino, so he gives a very good performance, despite an accent that fluctuates between a Jew and something else, but I’m not sure director Daniel Sullivan coaches more out of him than anyone else might have given to the part. I kept hearing raves, even as I avoided reading reviews before seeing the show. Everyone was talking about the performance, but after seeing it, I couldn’t help but think, “Raves? Really?” Respectable, sure, but I didn't see anything that made me say, "This is the best Shylock ever!"

Maybe it’s hard to know what to expect from such a strange character in such a strange play. Shylock agrees to lend money to his hated enemy, Antonio (Byron Jennings), who seeks the money for his friend, Bassanio (Hamish Linklater), so that he can marry the beautiful heiress Portia (Lily Rabe). In return, Antonio agrees to pay with a pound of flesh if he defaults on the loan.

Meanwhile, Portia, in love with Bassanio, has her own problems. Her father’s will states that she can only marry the man who selects correctly from three small caskets, gold, silver and lead. One contains Portia’s picture and the man who selects correctly wins the girl. Attempts by the Prince of Morocco (a very funny Nyambi Nyambi) and the Prince of Gobbo (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) are unsuccessful. The process is overseen by Portia’s servant, Narissa (Marianne Jean-Baptiste – here, in truth, is the standout performance of the night. She's fabulous.) When Bassanio chooses the right box, he and Portia are wed and so are Narissa and Bassanio’s friend, Gratiano (Jesse. L. Martin).

But not all is happy in Venice. Shylock’s daughter, Jessica (Heather Lind), converts to Christianity and elopes with Lorenzo (Bill Heck) with the help of some money she steals from her father. Meanwhile, Antonio’s assets, with which he was to repay the loan, are lost at sea. Refusing to show any mercy and relishing the thought of cutting out Antonio's heart, Shylock refuses offers of cash from others to repay the loan and demands his pound of flesh. Will the knife-sharpening madman get to take his just reward from the captive Antonio or will Narissa and Portia, disguised as men (so Shakespeare) save the day?

I’ll leave you to guess if you don’t already know, or to see the play, or at least to dust off your old volume of Shakespeare to find out, but with its near torture chamber scene, its anti-Semitic
themes and Shylock’s subsequent forced conversion to Christianity, this one from the bard is a little out there.

The production is very well done, though, admittedly, it’s hard not to like anything at the Delacorte Theater with all of Central Park as the backdrop. Mark Wendlend’s very slick, moving iron-gate set steals the show, though a strange-looking electric device in the torture scene is somewhat unclear in nature and looks more like a giant teapot at first. Jess Golstein’s costumes leave us wondering what time period we’re in: the men all wear suits with long morning coats and the women’s dresses suggest 19th century, though the original play is set in the 16th century, when the Inquisition and a forced baptism might be more at home.

A very satisfying production, a good, if not rave-generating performance from Pacino and a performance that deserve raves from Jean-Baptiste combine to make this time well spent (it’s three hours, so get a sitter for the little ones).

The Merchant of Venice is running through Aug. 1 in rep at the park with The Winter’s Tale. at the Delacorte Theatre, Central Park, near 81st Street. Tickets are free and are distributed to those waiting in line at the park or through a virtual line online. Visit for more information.

Christians might also like to know:
• The scene where Shylock prepares to take his pound of flesh is a little creepy. No additional notes.

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play concept, "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Intensive and other training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women. She is a former vice preseint and voting member of The Drama Desk.

She is a freelance writer and playwright (member Dramatists Guild of America). She is a member if the The Outer Critics Circle (event manager for the annual awards ceremony), The American Theater Critics Association, The League of Professional Theatre Women and the Drama League. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She also is a member of the Episcopal Actors' Guild, the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts and The O'Neill Theatre Center..

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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