It is quite the concept, this recasting of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice into the post-Civil War cauldron of Washington D.C. Playwright Aaron Posner not only shifts the action out of Venice and moves the time frame up several centuries, but he also re-crafts the old story of a Christian merchant who makes a bad deal with a Jewish moneylender named Shylock (a seething Matthew Boston) into a powerfully relevant mirror of our own times. It is as fresh and thought provoking as the morning paper (or news feed, if you will) with its stories of racial, political, economic, social and religious strife. The play deals with the still unresolved detritus of three and a half centuries of slavery in America and the never-ending fallout of that great sin.
Antoine DuPre (powerful, charismatic Montae Russell) is a Black wheeler-dealer, a man with many irons in the commercial and economic fires of Reconstruction. He was born a free man thanks to his father who was emancipated for his navy service during the War of 1812. A young friend of his, Benjamin Bassanio (the thoroughly engaging Chris Butler), a very light skinned Black who easily passes for White, begs the merchant for the loan of three thousand dollars in order to woo and hopefully to win, a Boston Brahmin heiress, Portia (Helen Sage Howard Simpson). Antoine is wealthy, but his capital is tied up making him cash poor. He seeks a loan from Shylock, who he has scorned in public and toward whom he has been otherwise abusive.
Shylock’s life is bitter and cramped, making him harsh and pointedly unpleasant. Life has been cruel to him. A survivor of the dreadful pogroms of Eastern Europe, a widower bereft at the loss of his wife, he leads a crabbed existence with his daughter Jessica (Rachel Esther Tate) who chafes at her limited life. After some bitter banter, Shylock agrees to the loan, but curiously rejects charging interest. In a bitter jest, he proposes that security for the loan be the famous “pound of flesh” cut from the body of the merchant should the loan not be repaid on time.
Shakespeare’s romantic subplots are intact and shaped to the world of the play. Portia, as written and played by Ms. Simpson, projects intellectual acuity, as well as emotional vulnerability, especially when thrown into turmoil over the racial identity of her lover. She is a bold woman who binds her breasts and dresses as a man in order to study law at Harvard, a valuable skill when Shylock goes to court to recover his bond from Antoine.
As Shylock’s put upon servant, Lancelot, the amiable Akeem Davis is charmingly comic, emotionally expansive, and very self-aware. He becomes a gobsmacked oaf at the sight Portia’s emancipated, tart-tongued servant, Nessa (regal Kristy Johnson). And finally there is the Irish ne’er-do-well, Finneus Randall (Matthew Grondin). A silver tongued charmer, he gets caught in a net of his own devising by falling in love with Shylock’s lovely daughter Jessica, whom he intended to seduce and abandon.
The performances by this fine ensemble are bold and enthralling. There is an extended moment in the play where an actor holds a scene in exquisite suspense, the audience’s breath collectively held in pin drop silence, as the character struggles with the impact of new information. Stunning! And the ferocity of Mr. Boston’s Shylock is stupendous, especially when counterpoised by Mr. Russell’s measured strength and keen intelligence. The emotional sincerity of the cast is thrilling.
Mr. Posner’s script is an absolute triumph of invention and form. The play begins with Messrs. Boston and Russell addressing the audience, declaring in bold Brechtian style, that “This is a play.” The two directly engage the audience many times throughout, sometimes in a confrontational manner. This is no “sit back, relax and enjoy the show” entertainment. No, it is a sit up, lean forward and pay attention play. All the characters at one time or another will break out of a scene to address the audience in self-conscious soliloquys, as their partners stand frozen. And, in a huge nod to Shakespeare, much of Mr. Posner’s text is written in satisfyingly loose iambic pentameter.
Visually, the production is sterling. The scenic design by Daniel Conway, with lighting by Elizabeth Harper, is a mixture dominated by Romanesque arches supported by columns on an elevated platform that call to mind the mosque in Córdoba. It suggests elegance and solidity; but lower down on the floor of the stage, there is an underlayment of loose bricks and lumber as well as roughly constructed platforms and stairs that undermine the impression above. There is also a hastily constructed scaffold downstage left, that at first glance might be a gibbet. Projections (Sean T. Cawelti) appear in the upstage arches that reinforce place and action. Period costuming by Garry Lennon is superb, as is the sound design and original music by Peter Bayne.
Masterfully directed by Michael Michetti, there is brilliance everywhere to be seen in all aspects of this production. Am I over-the-top enthusiastic about District Merchants? Yes. It is extraordinary. Adapted from the Shakespearean original, it is not the Merchant of Venice. It is deeper, wider and smarter than that. What is more, it speaks to us now, in this particular moment, in ways that the original cannot.
District Merchants runs through October 23 on the Julianne Argyros Stage of South Cost Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA.