Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

District Merchants
Folger Theatre
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Also see Susan's review of The Who & the What

Craig Wallace, left, and Matthew Boston
Photo by Teresa Wood
District Merchants, Aaron Posner's rethinking of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, has a lot to say and isn't shy about how it says it. The work, receiving its world premiere production at the Folger Theatre in Washington, brings a bracing contemporary feel to Shakespeare's story of justice and mercy—and, most important, money.

The in-your-face quality begins with lead characters Antoine (Craig Wallace) and Shylock (Matthew Boston) smashing the fourth wall and addressing the audience face-on. Later on, Shylock will harangue a random member of the audience.

The setting is a fictionalized version of Washington in the early 1870s: The Civil War is over, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution has outlawed slavery, and free African Americans and Jewish immigrants are trying to find their way in society. The playwright is obvious in his use of the theme of "reconstruction" with regard to both the city and the characters, and it also shows up in Tony Cisek's scenic design of platforms, tilted Ionic columns, and rough wooden floors.

Posner follows the basic story of the play but works through it to demonstrate how no one is completely free from prejudice and the unlikely ways intolerance can express itself. Antoine (Shakespeare's Antonio), a freeborn man of color, and Shylock, an immigrant Jew from Eastern Europe, had some possibly shady business dealings during the war, and now Antoine seeks a loan from Shylock on behalf of his young friend Benjamin Bassanio (Seth Rue), who is pursuing the wealthy Portia (Maren Bush).

Benjamin is the light-skinned son of a slave woman and her master, passing for white in his love for Portia, a liberal aristocrat from Massachusetts. She's doing some passing of her own, taking on a male identity so she can attend law school at a time when women weren't welcomed as lawyers. (Foreshadowing.)

Posner has created eight characters who consciously defy stereotypes but can't get beyond the "blinders" that cause them to see people unlike themselves as "them." Lorenzo (William Vaughan), a poor white southerner, is a true friend to Benjamin, but he can't deal with his conflicted feelings for Shylock's daughter Jessica (Dani Stoller), a devout Jew stifled by her father's overprotectiveness. Portia believes that she and her maid Nessa (Celeste Jones) are friends, while Shylock's servant Lancelot (Akeem Davis) weighs whether to betray his employer.

Wallace and Boston stand out as men driven by pride to do what they do. Bush earns laughs for her naïve view of lawyers as a force for good and Washington as a place where people do the right things for the right reasons, and Stoller is deeply moving as Jessica.

Folger Theatre
District Merchants
May 31st – July 3rd
By Aaron Posner, based on The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
Shylock: Matthew Boston
Portia: Maren Bush
Lancelot: Akeem Davis
Nessa: Celeste Jones
Benjamin Bassanio: Seth Rue
Jessica: Dani Stoller
Lorenzo: William Vaughan
Antoine: Craig Wallace
Directed by Michael John Garcés
201 E. Capitol St., SE
Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 202-544-7077 or

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