The challenge for directors who put these shows together is finding a way to blend the varied acting styles and stage expertise that come with such a motley crew. And this year, the task has been made even greater because the Public Theater has decided to present The Merchant of Venice and The Winter’s Tale in repertory with actors appearing in both productions on alternate nights. To up the ante even more, two directors with very different styles were brought in to shape the shows—Michael Greif for Winter’s Tale and Daniel Sullivan for Merchant of Venice.
Perhaps to compensate for Merchant's notorious anti-Semitism, Sullivan has re-imagined the play making it less of a comedy and more of an existential tragedy, which seems to have appealed to most of the critics who liked it far better than they did A Winter’s Tale. I felt pretty much the opposite way. Sullivan’s Merchant is darker and edgier, qualities that carry more weight in the current cultural landscape. But I liked the lighter, more optimistic approach to Greif’s Winter’s Tale, which reminded me of those straight-ahead productions of my youth.
Just about everyone agrees that the acting in the shows is a mixed bag. Of course, most people want to see Al Pacino as Shylock (both Senator Charles Schumer and “Glee”’s Matthew Morrison were in the audience the night my husband K and I saw Merchant). And Pacino’s fine in the role but the standout in this show is Lily Rabe who makes a fabulous Portia. On the other hand, alas, the usually dynamic Ruben Santiago-Hudson is far too tepid as Leontes, the jealous King of Sicilia in Winter’s Tale.
While the actors playing the male and female leads appear only in those shows, other members of the casts do double duty with roles in both, albeit with only varying degrees of success. The goodies are Jesse L. Martin, charming as Polixenes, the wrongly accused King of Bohemia in Winter’s Tale, and as Gratiano, one of the courtiers in Merchant; the patrician-looking and sonorous-voiced Byron Jennings, sheer perfection as the noblemen Camillo in Winter’s Tale and Antonio in Merchant; and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, particularly fierce as Paulina, the noblewoman who dares to defy King Leontes in Winter’s Tale.
The not-as-goodies include Francois Battiste, who has been terrific in contemporary roles in The Good Negro and Broke-o-logy but seems far out of his comfort zone as Florizel, the love-struck prince of Bohemia in Winter’s Tale, and Salerio, one of the courtiers in Merchant; and Heather Lind, a recent graduate of NYU, who is lovely to look at as the ingénues Perdita in Winter’s Tale and Jessica in Merchant but hasn’t found a way to make her characters more than mere pretty faces.
But most egregious for me was Hamish Linklater, who seems to have let the raves he earned for his comedic turn as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in last summer’s all-stars production of Twelfth Night go to his head. This time out, he’s so desperate to maintain his funny-man rep that he resorts to the cheapest of laugh-getters and literally moons the audience as Autolycus, the supposedly lovable rascal in Winter’s Tale. Linklater does do better in Merchant but he still seems miscast as Portia’s suitor-of-choice Bassanio and it’s hard to see what a smart gal like her would see in him.
Of course desirability—and one’s view of Shakespeare—often rests in the eye of the beholder. My husband K likes to know as much as he can about a Shakespeare play before he sees it and he spends days reading both the text and commentaries about it. We had a good time over a late dinner at a nearby Columbus Avenue restaurant after the show comparing his take on Merchant to Sullivan’s concept of it, even though K didn’t care at all for the latter.
My sister Joanne, who went with me to see The Winter’s Tale, takes the opposite approach to seeing Shakespeare. She won’t even read the notes in the Playbill while waiting for the show to start because she likes being surprised by the play as it happens and her responsive laughs and groans would do a 16th century groundling proud. She also got a kick out of matching the famous faces on stage to their day jobs on TV series (Jean-Baptiste from the old CBS show "Without a Trace," Linklater and the recently canceled CBS sitcom “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” Santiago-Hudson on the ABC crime series “Castle,” and Martin, who spent nine years as Det. Ed Green on NBC's “Law & Order.”)
What I liked best was simply watching the shows in the middle of Central Park on two beautiful summer nights (I lucked out both times and suffered no stifling heat, no rain showers). And clearly others feel the same way. People are camping out overnight for the free tickets to the shows. The man sitting behind K and me at Merchant said he got there at 5 a.m. and was the third from the last to get tickets that day.