I had simple plans this Sunday. Laundry. Chores. Shopping for a small dinner party I’m hosting. And finishing off my review of District Merchants, the latest classical adaptation from local rising star Aaron Posner, which I largely enjoyed.
Then I woke to news of a mass shooting at Pulse, a gay club in Orlando. A shooting that, since I starting writing this review, has been declared the deadliest mass shooting in American history. Fifty dead at last count. Fifty.
Fifty. And counting.
And so I sit and I ponder District Merchants, an adaptation of The Merchant of Venice, in which minority groups jockey for social position over each other in a system controlled by white elites and oppressed peoples hide their true natures out of knowledge of lack of opportunity and fear of violence if they reveal their true selves. It’s shameful how relevant these themes are in 2016. Especially on a day like this Sunday.
In Posner’s Merchants, the action has moved to post-Civil War Washington, D.C, an environment in which former enemies have come together to rebuild a society nearly destroyed by violence, war and sectarian and ethnic hatred. In this environment, Shylock (Matthew Boston) and Antoine (Craig Wallace), a free black man, have relatively prospered, profiting well off serving the needs and aspirations of their respective communities.
The plot largely follows Shakespeare’s, with some notable and largely admirable, changes. The original Merchant, one of Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays”, is most problematic for it’s portrayal of Jewish moneylender Shylock, which could only be called progressive and humanistic in the context of being written in the late 16th Century. Posner goes to greater lengths to humanize and contemporize his Shylock, here a much more sympathetic antagonist, more sinned against than sinning.
His Portia(Maren Bush) too, is a much more fully realized and three-dimensional character, her loyalties and priorities torn over revelations in regards to the origins of her lover Benjamin (Seth Rue). Bush and Rue have a crackling chemistry, and their playful scenes, with their quickly and constantly shifting power dynamics, are among the show’s highlights.
Meghan Raham’s costumes are another highlight, one of the best designs I’ve seen this year, all power-clashing patterns and sharp, structural angles, aside from Shylock’s severely monochromatic garb. I like to imagine these clashing patterns indicate the characters’ inner conflict, the self they feel compelled to present to the world out of step with their inner identify and desires.
closes July 30, 2016
Details and tickets
I enjoyed Posner’s stylish melange of contemporary, Shakespeareance and 1860’s vernaculars, though the play feels a bit overstuffed. Posner may be one of the few writers who loves his soliloquies even more than Shakespeare himself. He falls a bit too in love with all his subplots, giving each their climax and extended and denouement, which lessens the impact of the visceral climax of Shylock and Antoine’s story. Attempts at audience call and response, of both comedic and aggressive variety, are uneven at best and slow the pace of the piece. As much as I enjoyed it, Merchants seems a draft or two from potential greatness. Which is exciting in its way. Posner’s message would be served by cutting his medium down a good 20 minutes or so.
But most importantly I am heartened that in our community we have artists willing to challenge the powerful and the big issues of our time that seem so similar to the big issues of all times. We need that sort of catharsis and passion to get us through days like today, to let us know that there is a way forward together, strong and proud in ourselves and our loved ones, even as we bear witness as the worst of our impulses bear such tragic fruit.
District Merchants by Aaron Posner, based on The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. . Director: Michael John Gercés . Set Design: Tony Cisek . Sound Design: James Bigbee Garver . Lighting Design: Geoff Korf. Costume Design: Meghan Raham . Dramaturgs: Michele Osherow, Ayanna Thompson . Stage Manager: Roy A. Gross. Produced by Folger Shakespeare Theatre. Reviewed by Ryan Taylor.