Al Pacino is channeling my accountant: the same stooped humpback; the same flailing, floppy arms; all the physical discomfort that implies a deeper, metaphysical discomfort with being in the world. A flapping sense that his only defense against the indignity of existence is the sterile mathematics of money. It’s the kind of performance you expect from Pacino — physical and showy, skating at times along the lip of caricature, the emphatic hand gestures, the constipated facial expressions and fussy posture, the New York cadences in his voice, all wrapped in heavy Hasidic garb.
This is Shylock, after all, the notoriously petty moneylender in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” It’s a bracing, discomfiting experience to see Pacino conveying him with such bald stereotypical ugliness in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s current production, at The Delacorte Theater in Central Park. You cringe at first. You want to look away. You wonder: Could Pacino and the show’s director, Daniel Sullivan, really, in 2010, be presenting Shylock as a villainous, unrepentant shyster, one you suspect is hiding horns under his yarmulke and hooves in his boots?
It seems so.
That is, until you begin to place this Shylock in the context of the other elements of the production.
There’s the ironworks, the massive abacus of Mark Wendland’s set, which at the beginning of the play encircles the stage, turning it into a kind of steampunk stock exchange. Throughout the show, it is cleverly reconfigured, gesturing toward various locales — a cramped street in the Jewish quarter, a country estate, a grand drawing room, a prison — without ever allowing the viewer to forget the sooty, mechanical era in which the production has been set. And the costumes. All these long waistcoats, all these various sorts of hats, such a muted color palette. Ah, it’s the Industrial Age. This is a period piece. And Shylock the Jew is being presented in the manner of the time. We’re meant to shake our heads and scold the past for its crimes, thanking God that we live in a more enlightened era.
But that’s not quite it, either.
“The Merchant of Venice” follows the typical Shakespearian comedic template: For various reasons, the hero and his paramour can’t be together, usually because one or the other is unfairly trapped by circumstances beyond his or her control. Complications arise, social and ethical issues are explored, the fool makes punny jokes, cross-dressing ensues, justice is restored and, finally, everyone pairs off and gets married.
In this case, the hero is a foppish guy named Bassanio, played with an impulsive earnestness by Hamish Linklater, and what stands in the way of his happy marriage is a severe lack of funds. The woman he loves, Portia (a brassy Lily Rabe), has promised her dead father that she will marry the first nobleman who passes a test involving boxes and riddles. Bassanio needs funds to travel to her estate. His bosom friend, Antonio (the merchant of the title, played by Byron Jennings), is rich enough to help him, but his money is all tied up in overseas trading. Enter Shylock, the moneylender, and his “pound of flesh,” the penalty he demands of Antonio if he defaults on his loan.
Judged solely by the plot, Shylock is the problem that the hero and his coterie must overcome, a bitter, pitiless Jew whose heart is ruled by money. And throughout the early part of this production, the audience is encouraged to see him this way. When Antonio smirks and rolls his eyes at Shylock’s demand, we smirk with him, even as we recognize how broadly anti-Semitic the play’s stance is toward Shylock.
As the play progresses, the anti-Semitic notions grow more explicit. There’s a carnival scene in which a giant papier-mâché Jew dressed as a devil is paraded around the stage. When Lorenzo, the lover of Shylock’s daughter Jessica, comes to take Jessica away to the gentile world, he and his friends viciously tear apart Shylock’s possessions in search of valuables — the actors playing up their characters’ venality.
Suddenly, you’re wondering: Am I complicit in this? By conceding to this play on its own terms — by enjoying it — am I condoning the dominant racism on display? What moral stance am I supposed to be taking here? It’s unrelenting and unapologetic. Throughout the entire evening, the heroes of the play repeatedly show themselves to be as spiteful and despicable as the “problem character.” This is an uncertain position in which to place the audience, one fraught with risk: The audience might simply be appalled; might not get the irony; might turn against the play, in revulsion.
But there’s something else in Pacino’s performance that saves it from mere shtick, something that, in tandem with the carefully complicated moral position in which the audience has been placed, transforms this production from a smart, prickly exercise in irony into exceptional theatrical art. There’s pain in this performance. Inconsolable pain. The pain of a man who believes in reason, who believes in the power of the law, the Talmud, to guide his life, to give him the dignity his society denies him.
In the final showdown — the trial where Shylock tries and fails to extract the pound of flesh he is due — as Pacino works and reworks his pain, trying and trying again to make himself understood, the rest of the cast mocks him, chuckling at that pain. Suddenly, you realize you’re on his side. Shylock’s is a pain that can’t be understood by those to whom much has been given in this world. It’s not a pound of flesh he wants, but dignity, and there’s no way any of these people will ever allow him to have it. And if you’re like me, you realize suddenly that he never really was channeling your accountant, he was channeling you. And he got you exactly right.
I’ve been lucky enough to witness a few rare performances in which the actor not only embodies the character, but also seems to tap some raw nerve in humanity itself: Ian McKellen as Richard III, Charles Durning as Big Daddy, Fiona Shaw as Medea. Al Pacino’s Shylock is just such a performance.
Joshua Furst is the author of the novel “The Sabotage Café” (Knopf, 2007) and the collection of stories “Short People” (Vintage, 2004).