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District Merchants
South Coast Repertory
Review by Bill Eadie


The Cast
Photo by Ben Horak/SCR
Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is considered a "problem" play in the sense that it can be interpreted as being sharply anti-Semitic and counter to contemporary sensibilities. Commissioned by Washington, D. C.'s Folger Theatre at Folger Shakespeare Library, where he is artistic associate, playwright Aaron Posner has reimagined the problem of The Merchant of Venice by bringing it to the fore in ways by which both entitlement and prejudice are made manifest.

The result of this rethinking is a version of the classic tale that resonates with contemporary sensibilities—and anxieties—without pandering to either of them.

Mr. Posner sets his play, District Merchants, in the Washington, D.C., of the 1870s. It is the Reconstruction period, and the many free men of color who lived in the District before the beginning of the Civil War have prospered, while former slaves who have moved to the District in search of a new life have struggled to some degree. Still, there is a black-white divide that is hard to overcome.

Antoine DuPre (Montae Russell) is one of those who have prospered, and he is happy to try to help his compatriots to prosper as well. One of Antoine's younger friends is a good-looking, light-skinned man named Benjamin Bassanio (Chris Butler). Bassanio would like to woo a white woman of means named Portia (Helen Sage Howard Simpson), but he needs a good deal more money than he has to do so. Antoine wants to help his friend, but he doesn't have the available cash.

So, Antoine approaches Shylock (Matthew Boston), the Jewish money-lender. They are not friends, and Antoine disapproves of Shylock's business practices. But borrowing from Shylock seems to be the only way to obtain the necessary funds for Bassanio.

Shylock surprises Antoine by saying that he doesn't wish to charge interest on the loan but that he will extract a pound of Antoine's flesh if he does not repay on time. Antoine agrees, and Bassanio goes off to woo Portia by passing for white, though Portia's maid Nessa (Kristy Johnson) sees through Bassanio's charade at first glance. Portia is engaged in her own deception, as she is enrolled at Harvard Law School by pretending to be a man.

Meanwhile, Shylock's daughter Jessica (Rachel Esther Tate), whom Shylock has been shielding from the world, responds to the flirting of an Irishman named Finn Randall (Matthew Grondin). Irish immigrants were despised during this period, and Finn's motives are not entirely pure. The goings on in and around Shylock's house are observed by his manservant Lancelot (Akeem Davis), a former slave.

If you think this plot description sounds much like that of The Merchant of Venice, you'd be right. Mr. Posner's "added value" in stripping Shakespeare's tale to its essence and resetting it to a particular period of U.S. history is to make all of his characters oppressed in some way. Antoine, Bassanio, Lancelot, and Nessa are oppressed for the color of their skins, Shylock and Jessica for being Jewish, Finn for being Irish, and Portia for being a woman. By surfacing the oppression, Mr. Posner is able to provide his characters with means to express their feelings about their oppression through monologues, often addressed directly to the audience. In some ways, he's mimicking Shakespeare's soliloquies, and in other ways he's not, but the technique most always produces fresh insights (in the "lessons learned" section near the end, Bassanio's observation that, in 150 years "maybe Woman Lawyers and Black Men will run the country" gets a big laugh).

Under Michael Michetti's direction, South Cost Repertory's West Coast premiere gets about as ideal a production as one could imagine. All of the cast members sparkle, as does the production itself—I'd single out Daniel Conway's creative scenic design for particular praise.

District Merchants succeeds not only in solving the problem of The Merchant of Venice but contributes to understanding contemporary understandings of race, gender, religion, and nationality. As well, it may motivate its audiences to revisit Shakespeare's original. I'd say, "well done" on all accounts.

South Coast Repertory's District Merchants, through October 23, 2016, on the Julianne Argyros stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, CA 92628-2197. Tuesday through Saturday evenings, with Saturday and Sunday matinees. For more information, visit www.scr.org.




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