Playwright Aaron Posner offers theatergoers his 21st-century riff on Shakespeare’s The Merchant Of Venice in District Merchants, a South Coast Repertory West Coast Premiere at once unabashedly romantic, cautiously cynical, and resolutely hopeful. I loved every minute of it.
Whereas Posner’s Stupid F**king Bird brought Chekhov’s Seagull flock all the way up to the present day, District Merchants has Shakespeare’s Venetians time-traveling to 1870s Reconstruction-era Washington DC, where Jewish money-lender Shylock (Matthew Boston) finds himself approached by prosperous African-American merchant Antoine DuPre (Montae Russell) for (you guessed it) a loan.
The money in question ($3000, or $50,000 in today’s currency) is not, however, for Antoine himself, but for his friend Benjamin Bassanio (Chris Butler), a light-skinned black man passing for white and courting law student Portia (Helen Sage Howard Simpson), who too has chosen to pass, in her case for male, there having been no such thing as lady lawyers back in the 1870s (unless, God forbid, you wanted to practice in Iowa).
Meanwhile, Shylock’s sheltered daughter Jessica (Rachel Esther Tate) finds herself wooed by cocky young Irish immigrant Finneus Randall (Matthew Grondin), who may initially have been pursuing Jessica’s father’s fortune but can’t help falling victim to her distinctly un-Irish charms.
Completing the cast are a pair of servants, Portia’s saucy, savvy Nessa (Kristy Johnson) and Shylock’s erudite, ambitious Lancelot (Akeem Davis), both of them black.
1870s Washington, as racially fraught as it was diverse, allows playwright Posner to examine issues of race, religion, and social class not unlike those still tormenting us today, a century-and-a-half later, Shakespeare’s iconic characters taking on fresh shadings when transported to a new time and place in the most thought-provoking and entertaining of ways.
Fourth-wall-breaking soliloquies abound, most of them delivered in contemporary, occasionally vulgar vernacular (“Ben” Bassanio tells us, “I’ve been knocked on my ass time after time by—excuse my language—ignorant shit-heads … and to be honest, I’m tired of it.”), though Shakespeare fans will recognize a number of Merchant Of Venice bits intact, Portia’s “The quality of mercy is not strained” and Shylock’s “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” among them.
Not all of The Merchant Of Venice’s plot threads have made it into District Merchants, but one of them most certainly has—Shylock’s insistence on his “pound of flesh,” i.e. Antoine’s very life, should the latter renege on his loan, just one reason District Merchants will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout its two compelling acts while wondering which of its three romantic pairings will end up happily ever after.
Having directed Stupid F**ing Bird to considerable acclaim at The Theatre @ Boston Court, Michael Michetti proves an inspired choice to helm District Merchants at South Coast Rep, and the performances he has elicited from his cast of seven are simply splendid.
Reprising the role he originated earlier this year at Washington D.C.’s Folger Theatre, Boston is nothing short of magnificent as Shylock, hardened by the pogroms of his native Ukraine but never less than human.
Russell matches Boston every step of the way as Free Man Of Color (and absolute mensch) Antoine, eager to help young Ben become “a force in this country” while not above profiting from his protégé’s success.
Simpson’s remarkable Portia and Butler’s charismatic Ben will have you rooting every step of the way for their success in both careers and romance, and the same can be said for Tate’s smart, passionate Jessica and Grondin’s irresistibly charming Finn.
Last but definitely not least are Johnson’s spicy Nessa and Folger returnee Davis’s sharp-witted Lancelot, the duo doubling deliciously to gender/race-bending effect in a pair of Act Two cameos.
District Merchant’s production design—Daniel Conway’s imposing pillared set, Garry Lennon’s richly detailed period costumes, Elizabeth Harper’s striking lighting, Sean T. Cawelti’s vivid projections, and composer/sound designer Peter Bayne’s pulsating musical punctuation—is Grade A all the way.
Casting is by Joanne DeNaut, CSA. Sammy Brown is stage manager. Joshua Marchesi is production manager. Additional program credits go to Jerry Patch and Kat Zukaitis (dramturgs), Amber Carras (production assistant), AJ Sclafani (assistant director), and Nike Doukas (dialect coach).
Ambitious, engaging, provocative, and rewarding in equal measure, District Merchants is classical-meets-contemporary theater at its most satisfying. Don’t miss it.
South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
October 11, 2016
Photos: Ben Horak, SCR; Debora Robinson, SCR