Seen at the Movies: Given its troubling treatment of anti-Semitism and its precarious balancing of light and dark moods, The Merchant of Venice is obviously one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays to present. But Michael Radford’s film version (officially titled William Shakespare’s The Merchant of Venice), which stars Al Pacino as Jewish moneylender Shylock and Jeremy Irons as the title character, borrower on behalf of his friend—lover?—Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes), is first-rate, setting the work in its proper historical context (anti-Semitic 16th-century Venice) and suffusing its tragic and comic modes with a melancholic spirit that somehow binds them. DP Benoit Delhomme, shooting partly on location and partly in a Luxembourg studio, breathes cinematic life into the play by combining handheld camerawork and a lighting/compositional style that recalls the Renaissance masters. The gorgeous language is beautifully handled by the cast, which treats even the more declamatory passages conversationally. (Lynn Collins plays the fourth key character, Portia, who comes into her own during the cross-dressing courtroom scene). The other excellent creative participants include production designer Bruno Rubeo, costume designer Sammy Sheldon, and makeup/hair designer Ann Buchanan.
Director Nicole Kassell makes a striking feature debut with another play adaptation, Steven Fechter’s The Woodsman. The film stars Kevin Bacon as a pedophile who has just been released from prison, and is trying to build some semblance of a normal life (including a relationship with a woman played by Kyra Sedgwick, the actor’s wife) even as he continues to contend with what one might call unhealthy urges. The material strains credulity and often seems pat, but Bacon gives a powerful performance, and Kassell has a delicate poetic touch. Xavier Pérez Grobet’s diffused, close-up cinematography is particularly good at positioning the film as an interior drama rather than a gritty treatment of the incendiary subject matter.
The great Javier Bardem, aged and rendered borderline unrecognizable by special makeup designer Jo Allen, is the prime attraction of Alejandro Amenábar’s The Sea Inside. Bardem plays real-life Spanish quadriplegic Ramón Sampedro, who fought a decades-long battle for legal right to be euthanised. I found the film a trial to sit through—we’re not really supposed to seriously question Sampedro’s position, and instead are put in the grim position of watching a man will his own death for two hours. DP Javier Aguirresarobe does an exemplary job shooting the film, especially during the central character’s flights of fantasy outside the room to which he’s confined.--John Calhoun
Seen on Broadway: The last show to open in 2004, the Lincoln Center Theater production of The Rivals, begins the new year in high style. Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s comedy of manners, written in 1775, hasn’t been seen on Broadway since 1942, and the design team has worked overtime to give theatergoers memories that will last another 62 years if need be. John Lee Beatty has outdone himself with a gargantuan set, which covers the breadth of the Vivian Beaumont’s stage; it’s the English resort of Bath, conceivably built to scale, and once the show has ended its run it should be auctioned off to theme park builders as a wittily stylized evocation of its period. The townsquare set is a character in its own right, and it’s to the credit of director Mark Lamos and a fine cast of farceurs that it complements, rather than overshadows, the extravagantly verbose, and at times rollickingly funny, text.
While the floor revolves to reveal each new location of the play, well-sliced hams like the adroitly addled Sir Lucius O’ Trigger of Brian Murray, the hilariously gruff Sir Anthony Absolute of Richard Easton, and the dictionary-defying Mrs. Malaprop of Dana Ivey savor every syllable in the roundelay of mistaken identities and class intrigues. The younger castmembers in the large ensemble fare well, too; I especially liked the scruffy Bob Acres of Jeremy Shamos, who, after a woebegone attempt to transform himself into a gentleman of leisure, spends Act II looking like a well-appointed garden gnome with a very peculiar updraft of hair.
The designers clearly had fun with a mandate of more is more. In Jess Goldstein’s costumes, the women (including the striking Lydia Languish of Emily Bergl) look like flower gardens on two legs; the pinks and purples and oranges cascade, and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting captures every hue. I take it the candelabras and chandeliers that descend periodically were under his jurisdiction; just when you thought you’d seen them for the last time, the interior of the twilit set reveals a few more at the close of the second act. Mrs. Malaprop, in particular, is well-served by Scott Stauffer’s crisp and uniform sound design. [Lazaro Arencibia’s voluminous hair designs, with wigs from Watson Design, and the fancy period makeup of Angelina Avallone deserve special mention.] The design “perpendiculars,” as Mrs. Malaprop would put them, are scenery built by Center Line Studios; paint by Scenic Arts; fabrication and show control by Scenic Technologies; lighting from PRG; costumes and millinery (superb hats) by Carelli Costumes; shoes and boots by Fred Longtin; and audio by Masque Sound. The Rivals is a Christmas gift that can be still be enjoyed.--Robert Cashill