Seen in Central Park: Summer can be a little sleepy where New York theatre is concerned but when Al Pacino is playing Shylock at the Delacorte you rouse yourself and go outdoors for a few hours, hoping for a quality of mercy from the heat and humidity. Pacino starred in a film version of The Merchant of Venice in 2004, but his different, more “theatrical” interpretation of the part is but one highlight of a satisfying production of Shakespeare’s most confounding play. It’s not just the anti-Semitic content, which director Daniel Sullivan has illuminated in compelling ways, but the play’s very nature. Not a drama about the downfall of the Jewish moneylender in 16th century Venice, it is a comedy largely centered on one of the Bard’s greatest heroines, the Christian heiress Portia, whose quest for love ultimately, and surprisingly, places her in the same courtroom where Shylock is trying to extract his infamous “pound of flesh” from his enemy Antonio, the merchant of the title.

I don’t recall many laughs in the respectable film version, but there are plenty in this Public Theater production, courtesy of Lily Rabe, who hits Portia out of the Park, so to speak. Distinguishing herself from show to show this is the young actress’ finest work to date, abetted by Marianne Jean-Baptiste as her lady-in-waiting, Nerissa, and Sullivan’s willingness for the show to be funny, at least in part. The trickiest role is Antonio; the aggrieved hero in its time, Antonio can today be seen as unsympathetic for goading and harassing Shylock, and bringing about his own misfortune, but the veteran Byron Jennings centers the role. A smoothly classical actor, he makes an excellent contrast with Pacino, in a broader, street-smart, and defiant characterization.

With a strong ensemble that includes Jesse L. Martin and Bill Heck (of the Signature’s The Orphans’ Home Cycle) at its disposal The Merchant of Venice plays in repertory with the Pacino-less The Winter’s Tale, the first time the Delacorte has attempted this is an almost 40 years. Retained for both shows are set designer Mark Wendland, LD Ken Posner, and audio designers Acme Sound Partners, whose Venice is by way of Edwardian England, a place fueled by money, with a ticker-tape machine and a manual exchange board prominent scenic elements as the production begins.

Semicircular black fences positioned to separate the merchants from the moneylenders demarcate the space and are maneuvered to create a number of other environments, like the courtroom where Antonio is harshly interrogated (pictured). There is greater vivacity to some of the other settings, with the lighting taking on a more festive air. But here, too, the production emphasizes the corruption of privilege and disconnection of the classes, as when a carnivalgoer dresses up as a devil-horned Jew. There is, toward the end, a stunning introduction of a particularly Venetian element to the design, used for a cruel purpose. Complementing the piece is a multifaceted score by Dan Moses Schreier; the costumes by Jess Goldstein further emphasize the divisions in this society, and the high comedy and gritty drama of the play.

The Merchant of Venice and The Winter’s Tale play through Aug. 1. Merchant, however, may transfer to Broadway later this year.

Equipment Vendors

The Merchant of Venice

Additional Scenery: Great Lakes Scenic Studios
Lighting Equipment: PRG
Audio Equipment: Masque Sound