Through the centuries actors, directors, and audiences have had a complex attitude of both attraction and revulsion to The Merchant of Venice. Somewhat perplexingly labeled one of Shakespeare’s “comedies,” the play considers such weighty themes as mercy and revenge, as well as prejudice toward and mistreatment of outsiders, as represented by Shylock, the Jewish moneylender.
That volumes have been written about the play’s difficulties is represented by two pieces in the program for District Merchants, Aaron Posner’s self-described “variation on a theme” of the Bard’s work, now showing at Folger Theatre.
The production is further aided by strong, committed performances.
Michele Osherow, resident dramaturg (Ayanna Thompson is co-dramaturg) sees Merchant and its protagonist more positively than does Alexander Leggett, an academic.
In any case, while District Merchants is inspired by the earlier work, it is a thing onto itself—with a happier ending and more mercy. Set in post-Civil War DC and focused mostly on Black-Jewish relations, the play also touches on rifts within the Black community and on male-female miscommunication.
Posner, a playwright and director drawn to adapting the classics, has taken on an ambitious task of transposing the characters and themes of Merchant to a different time and place. He also heightens the humor and romance. I’m not sure he succeeds, especially with the transposition, at this point.
District Merchants often seems too modern—as if it’s situations and attitudes belong more in 20th-century of New York. In addition to the racial tensions that seem “premature,” it seems unlikely Lorenzo, the Christian Jessica elopes with, would consider converting, though it is a clever twist on Shylock’s forced conversion in Shakespeare.
Pitting two suffering minorities with legitimate claims is also clever. District Merchants has many funny moments, as well as poignant ones. In Michael John Garces, Posner is fortunate to have a talented director who draws out the play’s many facets. Definitely appealing is Posner’s integration of Jewish history and culture, including Hebrew and Yiddish songs and expressions. The production is further aided by strong, committed performances.
Cruelty, self-pity, and dignity mingle in Matthew Boston’s depiction of Shylock, His performance makes clear the tendency for abused people to turn on others.
Craig Wallace, as Antoine, the hapless borrower, is a perfect foil, demonstrating how a person can like and admire his fellow, while a retaining a collective prejudice.
You could hear a pin drop as Maren Bush, the Portia, enjoys arguably the longest pregnant pause in drama, as she considers involvement with the biracial Bassanio. Seth Rue, the Bassanio, effectively conveys the ability to live a lie while being totally upfront in his romantic attentions.
William Vaughan, as Lorenzo, is endearing, even while he reflects the conflict men often have between love and lust (and sometimes greed) in dealing with women.
As Lancelot, Shylock’s servant who starts out loyal, Akeem Davis offers some needed comic relief as well as insight.
We don’t see much of the relationship between Shylock and his daughter, but Dani Stoller is delightful in a woman in love who also misses what she left behind.
Celeste Jones is memorable as Nessa, servant to Portia, whose discretion and thoughtfulness may make her the play’s most-level-headed character.
Christylez Bacon offers effective music, blending hip-hop and Jewish. A standout is Tony Cisek’s evocative set, suggesting at the destruction of the Civil War and Reconstruction, as well as, with a seeming flip of the wrist, a courtroom.
Geofff Korf and James Bigbee Garver, lighting and sound designer, respectively, enhance his work.
Meghan Raham, costumer, has designed period costumes, with the exception of Shylock’s traditional garb.
The audience, called upon by Posner’s frequent breaking of the fourth wall, seemed to nod in recognition at the characters and their prejudices.
Advisory: For ages 16 and up. Language, mature themes.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes long, with one 15-minute intermission.
District Merchants continues through July 3 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003. For tickets call the Box Office, 202-544-7077. Or click here.