06.21.10: culture blotter {the merchant of venice & the winter's tale @ shakespeare in the park}

day 311: sky above shakespeare

the public's decision to cast a repertory company of actors for shakespeare in the park this year is zippy for all kind of reasons. because they're flip-flopping between shows instead of staging two uninterrupted runs, one could in theory end up in central park for the merchant of venice and the winter's tale on consecutive nights (a prospect that thrilled me and vaguely horrified joe, who likes shakespeare well enough but found the idea of giving him six hours in forty-eight a little much). because they're striking at least once a week, the set design (which is typically quite fine) need to be extra-devious. because the public's artistic director is interested in elizabethan repertory, o my brothers, the 2010 lineup is all shakespeare all the time; euripides is the man and it's mean to poke hippies, but last year's bloody bloody arty chanting and 2008's hair left much to be desired.

the first performance of the merchant of venice (featuring al pacino as shylock) last saturday was...a little intense.


weekend shows are always popular, but this was something altogether different; some dude was blending margaritas on the lawn, several scalpers were hissing their way up and down the line (ticket hijinks are an ongoing problem, but not on that scale), and chevy chase was positively underfoot (which was also the case when i went to a pacino premiere at the ziegfeld a few years ago). the stage was as clever as i'd hoped it would be: a concentric series of sliding wrought iron gates separated nineteenth-century clerks' desks from one another and orbited a magnificent victrola (the music, particularly shylock's theme, was lovely). the play itself was interesting; i'd never seen merchant staged, and i wasn't quite prepared for how jarring the word jew needs to sound when one stages it as a tragedy. full-throated shylock (which is how al pacino played him - he was all growling, flying-spittle anger) is hard to subdue, and i can see why daniel sullivan decided to stage his conversion as a torture scene; he considers himself a prisoner of war, not a civilian. that reading works for most of the play, but it doesn't leave much room for the fifth act's comedy; how are we supposed to care about misplaced wedding rings when we've essentially just watched waterboarding? that aftertaste spoils each of the play's couplings, as it must, and leaves shylock's daughter on an empty stage, hearing his theme a final time at the scene of his baptism. it's a feel-good play.

then there's the winter's tale,* which gets the bulk of its unpleasantness out of the way early. for those of you unfamiliar with the lesser romances, this one begins as something like othello without iago: king leontes of sicilia decides his wife (hermione) and best friend (polixenes) are having an affair, refuses to listen to reason and his entire court and apollo (bad move) when they tell him he's a tyrannical fool, and makes everyone's life miserable for the sixteen years it takes his daughter to grow up in exile (he thinks she's dead; in fact, she's abandoned in the aforementioned best friend's kingdom by his tiresome underling). while the misogyny in the winter's tale could be as oppressive as merchant's anti-semitism, this production has genuine lovers to buoy it: heather lind, merchant's tragic portia, is also utterly charming as winter's abandoned perdita, raised by shepherds as a living, breathing pastoral.** leontes might not deserve his queen when she's returned to him, but his queen deserves their daughter, and the sweetness of their reunion (fine, i cried) makes hermione's self-imposed exile (she too is presumed dead for sixteen years) and apparent forgiveness of her schlub husband a bit more plausible. winter's set, in turn, is probably my favorite of the seven i've now seen at the delacorte; a wall of glass panes rose and set like a sun in the background, huge altars and censers snaked smoke across the stage, and puppeteers whipped bird-kites around our heads. moths spiraling between speakers, joe's hands clasped as he leaned into the final speeches, the night's warm breath on my neck.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 is chevy chase in pacino-specific love with me?

02 have you ever seen merchant staged? how was it?

03 what provisions would you pack for a night of theatre in the park?

*we had tickets for its first night as well and were rained out; happily, we made it through the virtual line again this past saturday.

**L: "perdita looks just like...what's-her-name from gossip girl, you know, blair waldorf?" J: "leighton meester. it saddens me that i know that."


Amanda said...

01 Clearly.
02 SOON, apollo willing.
03 Licorice and a pashmina, evidently.

04 Oh, the *set.* They do such nice things with puppets, the Public.

Milkmaid's dumb friend said...

01: He is.  But believe me when I say it’s better than having Robert Blake in David Lynch-specific love with you.  Or don’t you remember Lost Highway?
02: True story: I once asked a dude in college to run some lines with me while we sat on the floor in the hall during a prolonged break in an unrelated class, as it was my charge to memorize a bunch of Ariel’s pitiful bargaining with Prospero.  He responded by informing me Americans can’t perform Shakespeare for want of the proper accent, a perfidious libel, and then, oblivious, unprompted and in earnest, rendered Shylock’s famous speech using a very creative accent mixing one part British-with-air-quotes to five parts arrogant douche.  I’ll give him a B- for the staging, but I hope he has leprosy.
03: Baguette for raton laveur.

rachel (heart of light) said...

01. Sounds like a private matter between the two (three?) of you.

02. Yes. In the Globe, which was particularly awesome, history wise. The staging was good but nothing great. And I love Merchant, even though it's a little uncomfortable. Would be weird to see it done as a full on tragedy, although I also don't like it when those bits get toned down/laughed up too much. A delicate balance, that play.

03. Cold beer, bread, cheese.

kidchamp said...

lucky, lucky rachel! though the globe was rebuilt a few years before i lived in oxford, we somehow never made it to a show there. joe and i did spend a weekend in stratford-upon-avon for shakespeare's birthday in 1999 - our first "dates" were that weekend, actually - and saw an RSC show at the swan theatre, which might be the only super-old-school theatre in the round i've ever seen. the big historical zinger of that trip, for me at least, was the birthplace window, which various authors (keats, dickens, hardy)  tagged with diamond rings. well, that and meeting the missus. i ducked some seriously fancy shakespeare seminars to stroll along the river with him.

A, to my great surprise, the lion king musical had similarly excellent puppetry. giant giraffes, blocky little cubs, bird after bird after bird.

note, commenters, that amanda offered me her extra ticket to the winter's tale before she knew joe and i had our own, because she is that good to me. 

MDF, i lobbied hard to have a cat named ariel before admitting to myself how depressing it would be, shakespeare-wise. at the risk of doing him a disservice, it's probably best to avoid romantic entanglements with robert blake across the board. (and somehow lost highway always comes back to rammstein for me - but doesn't everything?)

LPC said...

All I remember was reading lines for Hamlet with William Hurt 30 years ago. I was an intern. Hormones trump literature, in case there were doubt. Which doubt would be warranted, mind you, but no.

rachel (heart of light) said...

Yes, very, very lucky. We (D was with me) were there at the second opening season, I believe. As groundlings, of course.