07/02/2010 11:28 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

First Nighter: Public Theater's Merchant of Venice and Winter's Tale Are Problems, Only the First of Which Is Solved

Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis decided to do some problem-solving during this summer's Shakespeare in the Park series. He scheduled The Merchant of Venice and The Winter's Tale, two plays that pose problems for modern audiences. Then he assigned, respectively, Dan Sullivan and Michael Greif to tackle the challenges -- and to complete their missions with pretty much the same set of actors in something resembling a repertory company.

It's a tremendous understatement to say that Sullivan has come up trumps, not least because for the role of problematic Jewish usurer Shylock, he has Al Pacino, and for the supremely fair in looks and manner Portia, he has Lily Rabe. Under Sullivan's tutelage, he also has one of the most accomplished casts ever assembled for Park presentations -- each of whom has no trouble speaking the Bard's intricate language trippingly.

Pacino, who loves nothing better than to return to the stage, is all but unrecognizable as he goes through the character's patience-testing vengeance for indignities suffered. That's not to say he's transformed physically. The difference is that at no point is he the metal-melting thespian he's recently allowed himself to become on screen -- in all, that is, but Michael Radford's 2004 Merchant of Venice movie.

That's obviously where Pacino honed the understated, even introspective, Shylock he offers. He makes the much-maligned money-lending and pound-of-flesh-demanding Jew a smallish man (with a subtle accent) at the end of his tether after being habitually shunned for executing the one job a man of his faith is able to pursue -- if not entirely legally under Venetian law. He reins in the fury, allowing it only floor-shaking effect when declaring in his "Hath not a Jew eyes?" aria that "the villainy you teach me, I will execute."

The nuances of his performance are strengthened by two dialogue-less scenes Sullivan -- according to a thoughtful director's prerogative -- adds to the script that have the effect of currying sympathy for Shylock. The first (spoiler alert!) is the brutal baptism forced on Shylock as punishment for his failure to follow through on the bond Antonio (the always fine Byron Jennings) can't hold to. The second interpolation won't be fully described here but is the fade-out image involving Shylock's convert daughter Jessica (Heather Lind), her legs dangling in the same body of water designer Mark Wendland has provided upstage center for the baptismal turmoil.

Lily Rabe's Portia is willowy and wise in the flattering gowns Jess Goldstein has afforded her (the performers wear Edwardian clothes), and she's forthright and funny when she and companion Nerissa (plucky Marianne Jean-Baptiste) disguise themselves as physician and assistant for the famous "quality of mercy" trial. Rabe has no trouble finding the humor of Portia's self-mockery or pulling off the good-natured kidding of fiancé and money-borrower Bassanio (missing-no-chance-to-charm Hamish Linklater).

Wendland's set, a series of curved wrought-iron fences, is moved along well-lubricated tracks by the cast -- other accomplished Shakespeareans being Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Matthew Rauch, Bill Heck, Francois Battiste, Jesse L. Martin. The smoothly gliding appointments are a reflection of the suave production. It's not every director who makes the Merchant of Venice challenge look like child's play. So hearty congratulations and thanks to all concerned.

As a disappointing contrast, director Michael Greif doesn't so much ease the Winter's Tale problem as compound it. The complication in Shakespeare's 1590's work is that Sicilian King Leontes (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), urging his friend Bohemian King Polixenes (Jesse L. Martin) to extend a visit, becomes inconsolably jealous when wife Hermione (Linda Emond) succeeds at persuading Polixenes to tarry. Leontes's sudden change leads inexorably to a series of deaths, at least one defection, and the banishment of new-born daughter Perdita.

But the abrupt transition is difficult for today's audiences to accept, though evidently not Elizabethan play-goers. And Greif does nothing to defuse resistance. Instead, he encourages immediate and then continuing white heat. Santiago-Hudson's first indication of suspicion ("Too hot, too hot") is blurted at high volume. And that's where the emotional and decibel level remains, with little notice taken by cast members of variety in humors -- until the scene switches to Bohemia when the quieter tones of redemption and rebirth take hold and eventually the supposed long-dead Hermione returns to calming life.

During these final scenes, performances radiating their own redemptive powers are filed by the lissome Heather Lind as 16-year-old Perdita, by bold Francois Battiste as her lover and Polixenes's son Florizel, by effortlessly funny Jesse Tyler Ferguson and by always reliable Hamish Linklater as the scamming Autolycus. For the record, the ensemble does the first-half ranting and second-half romping on a so-so set that suggests Mark Wendland ran out of inspiration with Merchant. P. S. The bear pursuing doomed Antigonus (Gerry Bamman) is a heart-sinking shadow puppet.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Grief's treatment is his casting a black actor as Leontes and a white actress as Hermione. Instantly, The Tragedy of Othello -- written several years later -- becomes an unmissable reference, and Greif neatly underscores Shakespeare's evidently abiding concern with, and differing approaches to, the green-eyed monster jealousy.