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The Crucible
by Arthur Miller
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
February 7, 2019

Gerry Love, Chrissie Watkins, Chuck Lavazzi, Graham Emmons, Cynthia Pohlson
Photo by Dan Donovan
Stray Dog Theatre

First it’s Henrik Ibsen, and now it’s Arthur Miller. Stray Dog Theatre has been having a lot of success with productions of classic plays lately. This time, instead of 19th Century Norwegian plays, like its excellent productions of A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler, the company has turned to the work of a legendary 20th Century American playwright and one of his best known works, The Crucible. Like the first of the aforementioned Ibsen plays, The Crucible is a play I had read but never seen. Now, at Stray Dog’s Tower Grove Abbey, I’ve seen it, and it’s a remarkable success.

This is a long play, with four acts and running about three and a half hours. It’s also a large cast for SDT, and a heavy subject matter, with Miller’s portrayal of the historical Salem Witch Trials told through the lens of 1950s McCarthyism. It’s not a precisely accurate account of the trials themselves, but this is more of a parable about the dangers of groupthink, peer pressure, overreaching government control, and more. The story starts as the Reverend Samuel Parris (Ben Ritchie), a respected pastor in the community, discovers some local girls dancing in the woods, including his young daughter, Betty (Avery Smith) and his orphaned  teenaged niece, Abigail Williams (Alison Linderer). Soon, other teenage girls from the community are identified, as well as Tituba (Kelli Wright), who Parris brought back from Barbados as a slave, and although she is initially suspected as the instigator it soon becomes clear that somebody else is in charge. There’s also Reverend John Hale (Abraham Shaw), a minister from a neighboring town who is brought in to investigate the charges of witchcraft and demonic influence, which eventually affects the whole village, particularly farmer John Proctor (Graham Emmons) and his wife, Elizabeth (Cynthia Pohlson)–who had recently dismissed Abigail from their employment–and Mary Warren (Chrissie Watkins), who now works for the Proctors and is a good friend of Abigail’s. Other prominent members of the community and church, including the highly respected Rebecca Nurse (Suzanne Greenwald) and the wife of landowner Giles Corey (Gerry Love) are suspected, with the accusations coming from Abigail and her friends, as well as influential landowners Thomas and Ann Putnam (Tom Moore and Laura Kyro). When prominent judges and officials Judge Hathorne (Jonathan Hey) and Deputy-Governer Danforth (Joe Hanrahan) become involved in the trials, it seems like most of the authorities are more interested in reputation and the process then in the truth.

The play is carefully constructed, introducing the main characters gradually and building the drama as each act progresses, with some particularly intense moments in the courtroom and with a memorable, devastating conclusion. The casting at SDT is especially strong, led by the poignant performances of Emmons and Pohlson as the conflicted Proctor and Elizabeth. Their relationship, strained at first, develops with believable emotion and chemistry. Linderer, as the initially enigmatic, manipulative Abigail, is also excellent, with some particularly strong moments in scenes with Emmons and with her friends/followers in the courtroom. There are also standout performances from Watkins as the conflicted Mary Warren, Hanrahan as the authoritarian Danforth, Shaw as the concerned and conflicted Hale, Greenwald as the noble Rebecca Nurse, Love as the determined Giles Gory, and more. It’s an especially strong ensemble, and the staging is well-paced and emotionally balanced, with the intense moments set up appropriately and significant time given to the more quiet moments as well.

Technically, this production is powerful, as well, with a striking, somewhat abstract set by Josh Smith and realistic costumes by Amy Hopkins. The lighting by Tyler Duenow and sound by Justin Been are also strong, with a poignant (if sometimes overdone) use of background music. The production design works well in emphasizing the historical basis of the play as well as it’s timely and timeless themes.

The Crucible is a classic, relevant in its time and just as relevant in contemporary times, when its various issues are especially applicable. With this production, SDT and director Gary F. Bell have assembled an exceptional cast for an immediate, intense and fascinating production. It’s another powerful staging of a classic by Stray Dog Theatre.

Cast of The Crucible
Photo by Dan Donovan
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting The Crucible at Tower Grove Abbey until February 23, 2019

 

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Classic Mystery Game
by Katy Keating
Directed by Katy Keating
SATE Ensemble Theatre
February 1, 2019

Cast of Classic Mystery Game
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

Do you like board games? Murder mysteries? Fast paced, high-energy comedy? Well, if you do, SATE has a “Clue” for you! Classic Mystery Game is writer-director Katy Keating’s parody of the well-known mystery game, Clue, as well as a tribute to the 1985 film based on the game. In the capable, creative hands of Keating and the cast and crew at SATE, it’s a fast-paced, highly physical examination of 21st century American culture as well as a riff on the classic style of the game.

Ostensibly based on the movie, this play is more based on the game itself, with a fair amount of local and topical references thrown in, including an opening video sequence that features the performance venue, the Chapel. Staged on the floor at the Chapel with the audience seated on the stage, the cast performs before a large painted replica of the Clue board. Bess Moynihan’s set design is especially clever, with that board featuring the rooms with lights around them that light up as each room is featured in the story, and a versatile set consisting of furniture and a movable door that is moved around as needed. Costume designer Liz Henning has outfitted the characters in colorful, vaguely 1950s-ish style, and Ben Lewis’s lighting helps highlight the ominous, comically haunting atmosphere. There’s also excellent work from props designers Rachel Tibbetts and Bess Moynihan, as well as fight choreographer Ryan Lawson-Maeske. The sights, sounds, and atmosphere are all set remarkably well, setting the stage for Keating’s witty, rapid-fire dialogue and fast-paced action as butler Wadsworth (Michael Cassidy Flynn) introduces the story and serves as narrator while participating in the story as well.

This is a hilarious show, with a spirit reminiscent of old-time sketch comedy shows. All the regular characters from the game are here–Col. Mustard (Carl Overly, Jr.), Mrs. White (Ellie Schwetye), Mrs. Peacock (Rachel Tibbetts), Mr. Green (WIll Bonfiglio), Prof. Plum (Paul Cereghino), and Miss Scarlet (Maggie Conroy), along with Mr. Boddy (Reginald Pierre) and two “clowns” (Marcy Ann Wiegert, Bess Moynihan) who play a variety of roles each. The styling of the show serves the story especially well, with the flat cut-out glasses used for cocktails, and the representations of the weapons from the game. Everything moves very quickly, with a story that touches on conspiracy, government cover-ups, secrets and lies, and lots and lots of scheming, as the characters assemble under a pretence, and then are driven to search throughout the house for clues once a murder occurs. Well, once the first murder occurs. Yes, there are more murders, and more surprises, a series of revelations and lots and lots of jokes. There’s wordplay and innuendo, along with physical comedy, sight gags and more as the story continues on its rapid pace until its suitably hilarious conclusion. I won’t give any more details, because that will spoil the fun. And fun, it certainly is.

The performances are strong across the board, and everyone has standout moments, with Flynn as the obvious MVP for his fully realized, energetic comic performance. This is a performance that’s sure to take a lot of energy, and Flynn plays his role well. Everyone else is also excellent and it’s difficult to single anyone out. Everyone is their own unique, distinctive character, and everyone shows incredible energy and superb comic timing. It’s an ensemble show worthy of a theatre company where “Ensemble” has always been front and center.

Classic Mystery Game is Clue with a side of whimsy and snark. It’s topical, timely, and timeless all the same, and with so many jokes that, if you miss one, you’ll probably catch the next one. As is usual for SATE, this show is offbeat, excellently performed, and not to be missed.

Cast of Classic Mystery Game
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE Ensemble Theatre is presenting Classic Mystery Game at the Chapel until February 16, 2019

 

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Avenue Q
Music and Lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, Book by Jeff Whitty
Based on an Original Concept by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx
Directed by Lee Anne Mathews
The Playhouse at Westport Plaza
January 31, 2019

Jennifer Theby-Quinn, Andrew Keeler Photo by John Flack The Playhouse at Westport Plaza

Avenue Q is a show that advertises its shock value and irreverence. Still, as a sort of adult-oriented (not for kids) riff on Sesame Street, this Tony-winning Best Musical has a surprising amount of heart amidst all that crassness. Now onstage at the Playhouse at Westport in a locally-produced production, this latest iteration boasts a strong cast featuring a few notable local performers.

As fantastical as the setup may be–humans and puppets interacting in a grown-up version of a children’s TV show–a lot of situations are relatable, which is, I think, where Avenue Q gets a lot of its appeal. I mean, for English majors everywhere (such as yours truly), it’s easy to relate to a song called “What Can You Do With a B.A. in English?” The struggle to make one’s way in the adult world is an experience a lot of viewers can imagine, because to one degree or another, we’ve experienced that struggle, as well as the disconnect between childhood dreams and adult realities. Here, the story follows the optimistic puppet Princeton (Andrew Keeler) as he makes his way in the “real world” after college, settling in on Avenue Q and making new friends, including the idealistic Kate Monster (Jennifer Theby-Quinn), bickering roommates Nicky (Kevin O’Brien) and the fastidious Rod (also Keeler), the porn-obsessed Trekkie Monster (also O’Brien), and also human friends, aspiring comic Brian (Brett Ambler) and his fiancée, the clientless therapist Christmas Eve (Tori Manisco at the performance I saw, standing in for principal Grace Langford), as well as jaded former child-star Gary Coleman (Ileana Kirven), who is now the neighborhood superintendent. Amid struggles to succeed and form new relationships, there are also obstacles and temptations, represented primarily in the form of the Bad Idea Bears (O’Brien and April Strelinger) and local lounge performer Lucy the Slut (also Theby-Quinn). It’s a funny, frequently crass, occasionally surprisingly poignant show with some memorable songs, a catchy premise, and a message that manages to be both cynical and hopeful at the same time.

The staging, as usual, is colorful and whimsical, with a brightly colored set by Dunsi Dai that is somewhat reminiscent of Sesame Street, aided by some fun projections by Val Kozlenko. The intimate setting at Westport is a good setting for such a small show, as well. There are also appropriate costumes by Rissa Crozier and excellent lighting by Michael Sullivan. The puppets, conceived and designed by Rick Lyon, are in the recognized Avenue Q style, and the cast members do a good job with bringing them to life onstage.

The small ensemble is well cast, led by the always excellent Theby-Quinn in a winning performance as the determined but unlucky-in-love Kate Monster, and also as the temptress Lucy. It’s especially impressive when both characters are talking to each other, and Theby-Quinn effortlessly transitions between the two different voices. She also displays a strong singing voice on numbers like “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” (as Kate) and “Special” (as Lucy). Keeler is also convincing as the optimistic Princeton and the conflicted Rod, also showing off strong vocals in both roles. O’Brien brings a lot of energy and comic timing to his roles as Nicky, Trekkie, one of the Bad Idea Bears, and more, and Strelinger is impressive in a variety of roles. The human characters are well-portrayed, also, with Manisco (the understudy) impressive as Christmas Eve, who ends up counseling a lot of the characters despite not having any formal clients. Ambler is funny as Brian, and Kirven shows excellent stage presence and a great voice as Gary.

This is a fun show, even if some of the songs have dated a little in the last decade or so, and some of the raunchiness seems to be there for the sake of shock rather than really serving the story. Still, for the most part it holds up well since the last time I saw a production 10 years ago. This edition highlights the comedy but also the heart, and it makes for an entertaining evening of theatre.

Cast of Avenue Q Photo by John Flack The Playhouse at Westport

Avenue Q is running at the Playhouse at Westport until March 3, 2019

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Fiddler On the Roof
Book by Joseph Stein, Music by Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Original Direction by Bartlett Sher
Original Choreography by Hofesh Shechter
Choreography Recreated by Christopher Evans
The Fox Theatre
January 29, 2019

Yehezkel Lazarov
Photo by Joan Marcus
Fiddler on the Roof North American Tour

This is Fiddler on the Roof, but not exactly as you may have seen it before. The national tour of Bartlett Sher’s most recent Broadway revival takes this time-honored classic and injects it with a fresh energy. It’s still the same show, essentially, but some staging changes and some especially strong performances highlight the strength of the material in a new and refreshing way, anchored by an especially strong leading performance and ensemble cast.

As beloved as Fiddler on the Roof is, one of the challenges to staging it is that, for most professional productions, the staging has strictly adhered to the original Jerome Robbins staging and choreography. As excellent as that is, if you see enough productions of the show, it can all seem too similar after a while. The most recent revival, while still using the Robbins staging and choreography as the basis, brought in a new choreographer, Hofesh Schechter, to change up some of the dances, and acclaimed director Bartlett Sher has added a simple but effective framing device to add an element of timeless transcendence to the story. These elements, along with an energetic, well-chosen cast, have brought a sense of vibrancy to this show that is especially refreshing. The story is the same, following Jewish milkman Tevye (Yehezkel Lazarov) and his family in 1905 Tsarist Russia, but now, everything seems more immediate somehow. The relationships between Tevye and his wife, Golde (Maite Uzal) and his daughters, and between his three oldest daughers Tzeitel (Mel Weyn), Hodel (Ruthy Froch), and Chava (Natalie Powers) and their suitors Motel (Jesse Weil), Perchik (Ryne Nardecchia), and Fyedka (Joshua Logan Alexander) seem even more authentic and credible. From classic solo moments like “If I Were a Rich Man” to big production numbers like “To Life”, “Tevye’s Dream”, and especially the entire wedding sequence, the energy is readily apparent, with new relationship dynamics subtly suggested, and with a great deal of energy and heart. Even the poignant ending is given a new sense of timelessness and hope without denying the inherent sadness of the situation.

There’s a great cast here, as well, led by the dynamic, charismatic performance of Lazarov as Tevye. With a strong voice and excellent stage presence, Lazarov brings all the energy, charm, likability and complexity of Tevye to the stage, leading the cast with a powerful performance. He’s well supported by a strong ensemble, as well, with standout performances from Uzal as Golde, Carol Beaugard as the determined matchmaker Yente, Jonathan Von Mering as the lonely butcher Lazar Wolf, and especially all three daughter-suitor combinations, with Weyn and Weil having particularly excellent chemistry. There’s a strong singing and dancing ensemble supporting the leads, as well, bringing the village of Anatevka to life in one memorable scene after another, from the opening “Tradition” to the closing “Anatevka”.

Technically, this production is stellar, as well. The set by Michael Yeargan is detailed and versatile, featuring well-realized settings like Tevye’s house against a more changeable background backed by an imposing brick wall. The costumes by Catherine Zuber are detailed and authentic, maintaining a classic Fiddler look with a few small changes here and there. There’s also truly stunning lighting by Donald Holder that sets and maintains the mood of the show especially well, along with excellent sound design by Scott Lehrer and Alexander Neumann.

One of the real strengths of director Bartlett Sher in his revivals is that he’s able to maintain the essence and spirit of a show while also bringing a new sense of immediacy and connection for modern audiences. He’s done that again, remarkably well, in this new Fiddler on the Roof. It’s still the same show, but there’s something extra there that’s especially rewarding. It’s on stage at the Fox now. Go see it if you can.

Cast of Fiddler on the Roof]
Photo by Joan Marcus
Fiddler on the Roof North American Tour

The North American Tour of Fiddler on the Roof is playing at the Fox Theatre until February 10, 2019

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The Motherf**ker with the Hat
by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Directed by Carl Overly, Jr.
R-S Theatrics
January 26, 2019

Jesse Muñoz, Adam Flores, Aaron Dodd
Photo by Jill Lindberg
R-S Theatrics

The latest production from R-S Theatrics has an eye-catching title, but there’s a lot more to it than that. The Motherf**ker with the Hat is technically a comedy, but there’s a degree of sadness, and even tragedy there as well. It’s a character study, looking at complex people and situations, and R-S has assembled a strong local cast for this memorable St. Louis premiere.

The story is intense and challenging, but with a lot of comic dialogue and surprising situations, as well as richly defined characters. Jackie (Adam Flores) has recently been released from prison after serving time on drug charges, and he’s trying to get his life back together, staying sober with the help of a 12-step group. He’s just gotten a new job, and he’s hoping to celebrate with his girlfriend, Veronica (Sofia Lidia), but soon he discovers a hat in her apartment that doesn’t belong to him, making Jackie suspicious that Veronica may be cheating on him. He takes refuge at the house of his sponsor, Ralph D (Aaron Dodd) and his wife Victoria (Talessa Caturah), who are now in the “nutritional beverage” business. He also enlists the help of his reluctant Cousin Julio (Jesse Muñoz) in one of his schemes to deal with the hat situation. That’s about all I can say in terms of plot without spoiling too much, because this story definitely has its twists. Just know that things aren’t always as they seem, and Jackie learns that some people are not as trustworthy as they seem, while others might have more complex motives. Essentially, it’s a character study, also taking a look at the challenges facing someone in Jackie’s situation, as well as Veronica’s, and how easy it is for some people to take advantage of people in vulnerable situations. It’s a gritty, intense play highlighted by sharp dialogue, strong language, and raw interpersonal interactions.

The characters here are multi-faceted, as are the impressive performances from the cast. As Jackie, Flores manages to be likable, intense, impulsive, and vulnerable at the same time,. Dodd as the self-centred, bold-talking Ralph is also excellent, portraying a character who is more than he may initially seem. Lidia, as the conflicted, addicted Veronica, gives a convincing portrayal of a woman who’s caught in several difficult situations. Caturah, as the exasperated Victoria, is also impressive, as is Muñoz as probably the kindest character in the show, the questioning but supportive Cousin Julio. The character interactions are highly charged much of the time, and they are well portrayed here by the cast and through director Carl Overly, Jr.’s fast-paced staging.

The .Zack can be a difficult performance venue, with its high stage, odd sight lines and giant pillars, but this production uses the space well, opening up the staging so the performance space includes the area in front of the stage in addition to the stage itself. Taylor Gruenloh’s set design reflects the grittiness of the piece, with its effective representations of Veronica’s small apartment the versatile floor area that converts from Ralph’s place to Cousin Julio’s place with a few quick furniture changes. The costumes by Christina Rios suit the characters well, and there’s also evocative use of lighting by Todd Schaefer and impressive sound work from Mark Kelley.

R-S Theatrics is known for its memorable, challenging, St. Louis premiere productions, and its latest show is another example of this tradition. The Motherf**ker with the Hat is a crass, sharply characterized, sometimes brutally intense show that portrays its characters with their flaws on clear display. The characters aren’t always easy to like, but they’re always interesting. It may seem a little too bleak for some, especially for a comedy, but at R-S, it’s especially well staged, and it’s worth checking out.

R-S Theatrics is presenting The Motherf**ker with the Hat at the .Zack until February 10, 2019

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Wittenberg
by David Davalos
Directed by Philip Boehm
Upstream Theater
January 25, 2019

Alan Knoll, Steve Isom Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Upstream Theater

It almost sounds like a set-up for a joke–Hamlet, Martin Luther, and Doctor Faustus walk into a classroom. What’s the punchline? Well, there’s a lot more to Upstream Theater’s latest show than punchlines. Wittenberg by David Davalos takes its intriguing premise and develops it into a compelling, funny, and thoughtful story, and Upstream has staged it with some impressive local talent.

So, this is a mash-up of sorts. It features a real-life character and two iconic fictional protagonists from theatrical history and puts them together in a way that provokes humor, yes, but also a lot of thought. The setting is Wittenberg, Germany, and the time is 1517. Hamlet (Corey Boland) is an aimless young student at the university, and he looks up to his favorite teachers, Doctor John Faustus (Steve Isom), who teaches philosophy; and Martin Luther (Alan Knoll), who teaches theology. The focus seems to be on Faustus most of the time, and his affectionate but often antagonistic relationship with Luther. They are essentially opposite influences on the impressionable Hamlet, who isn’t sure he’s ready to be king of Denmark and is still trying to figure out his purpose in life. There are no literal “deals with the devil” for Faustus here. Instead, he tries to make the most of life, reaching for experiences to validate him, such as his relationship with a woman, Helen (Caitlin Mickey, who plays several roles). The continuing philosophical and religious struggles and dilemmas of Faustus and Luther continue to play out and influence Hamlet’s and their own choices, as Luther vacillates about what to do about his theological issues with the Catholic Church, Hamlet struggles with identity, and Faustus tries to influence both of them while also trying to make sense of his own life.

It’s a fun show, with some interesting twists like having Faustus moonlight as a lute-playing lounge singer, Hamlet playing tennis with an offstage Laertes (voice of Nicholas Henke), Faustus and Luther as bickering friends, and more. All of the performers are excellent, with Isom giving the best performance I’ve seen from him as Faustus, portraying him as charming and fun-loving, but also with an underlying sense of sadness about him. Knoll is also fantastic as the sometimes strident, sometimes reticent Luther, and the scenes between him and Isom are the highlight of the production. Boland is also a delight as the eager-to-learn Hamlet, and Mickey does an excellent job in several roles, including the sophisticated Helen (described in the program as a “lady of pleasure), cheerful barmaid Gretchen, and–in an amusing vision of Hamlet’s–the Virgin Mary.

The space at the Kranzberg Arts Center is very small, but the production makes the most of that space, with a stunningly realized set by Michael Hall that portrays Faustus’s richly appointed office and desk laden with various artifacts and gadgets. The costumes by Laura Hanson are sumptuously detailed, as well, and the props by Rachel Tibbetts are excellent. There’s also striking atmospheric lighting by Steve Carmichael and sound by Philip Boehm to help maintain the mood and occasionally whimsical atmosphere of the production.

This is a play that has to be seen to be believed. It’s easy to describe in one sense, but it really has to be experienced. WIth a top-notch cast, stellar production values, and a smart, thoughtful, witty script, Wittenburg is a trip through the imagination that’s well worth taking.

Casey Boland, Steve Isom, Caitlin Mickey Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is presenting Wittenberg at the Kranzberg Arts Center until February 10, 2019

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District Merchants
by Aaron Posner
Directed by Jacqueline Thompson
New Jewish Theatre
January 24, 2019

J. Samuel Davis
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

For their latest production, New Jewish Theatre is staging another literary inspired comedy by Aaron Posner. Like last year’s Chekhov-based Life Sucks, District Merchants takes a new look at its inspiration–this time Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice–and re-imagines the characters and situations in a new setting. It’s a new look at an much-studied and problematic classic that honors its source material while simultaneously challenging and reinventing it.

The story is now set in Washington, DC and Massachusetts in the 1870s. The Civil War is over, slavery is outlawed, but racial tensions and injustices remain. The central figures, who address the audience to introduce themselves at the beginning of the show, are Jewish moneylender Shylock (Gary Wayne Barker), and Antoine (J. Samuel Davis), a black businessman who was born free, and who borrows money from Shylock to help his young friend, Benjamin Bassanio (Rob White) woo a wealthy young woman named Portia (Courtney Bailey Parker). That all sounds like The Merchant of Venice, essentially, but there are notable twists. There are some important things Benjamin hasn’t told Antoine about Portia, and about the manner in which he’s going about pursuing her. Shylock, for his part, is given a lot more backstory, and is a more sympathetic character, although he’s overprotective of his daughter Jessica (Alicen Moser), leading to her wanting to leave his house for good. She’s also attracted to Finn (Paul Edwards), a young Irish immigrant who has ulterior motives for pursuing Jessica, at least at first. Portia, in the meantime, wants to go to Harvard law school and become a lawyer, but she’s not allowed because she’s a woman. That doesn’t stop her, though. Meanwhile, Portia’s longtime maid and confidante Nessa (Rae Davis) is aware of more than she lets on, and challenges Portia on her own biases. There’s also Lancelot (Karl Hawkins), Shylock’s household servant who sympathizes to degrees with both Shylock and Jessica and finds himself in the middle of all the disputes. That’s the setup, really, but there’s a whole lot that goes on here that I won’t spoil. It follows the basic framework of The Merchant of Venice in a lot of ways, but also deviates from that plot in several important ways. Several key speeches from Shakespeare are included, as well, especially notable speeches for Shylock and Portia.

This is a fascinating twist on the source material, which has been subject for controversy and criticism over the years, especially in its treatment of Shylock and Jewish people in general. Here, the twist is that nobody is in the dominant social group in 1870s society. The main characters are Jewish or black, and there’s also the Irish Finn, and Portia who is wealthy and white, but as a woman isn’t allowed to pursue the career she desires, and is expected to make an advantageous marriage. The tensions represented here are personal as well as societal, and larger issues of systemic injustice are also emphasized, with some fourth-wall breaking and direct challenges to the 2019 audience. The tone is still, for the most part, comic, but there’s some poignant drama here, as well, particularly in the expanded backstory of Shylock, which gives his reasons for sheltering his daughter and demanding his “pound of flesh” from Antoine. The dynamics of all the relationships are turned around, but ultimately it’s a comedy and there is still hope.

The staging by director Jacqueline Thompson is fast-paced and dynamic, and the cast assembled here is truly excellent. Davis and Barker are the central figures, and both are terrific. Barker’s Shylock is guarded, insecure, but also proud at the same time, and Davis displays considerable presence as the determined Antoine. Both men energize the stage when they are on it, and their scenes together are especially memorable. There are also impressive performances from White and Parker, who display strong chemistry as Benjamin and Portia; and Moser and Edwards, with equally strong chemistry as Jessica and Finn. Davis, as the witty, occasionally snarky Nessa, and Hawkins as Lancelot also display good chemistry and excellent comic timing. It’s a cohesive ensemble all around, bringing a lot of humor, as well as depth to their portrayals.

Technically, this production is a wonder, with a stunning multilevel set by David Blake and meticulously detailed period costumes by Felia Davenport. Sean Savoie’s lighting also contributes effectively to the mood and tone of the production, as do Zoe Sullivan’s sound and projection, helping to transport the audience back to a different, fully realized time and place.

District Merchants is a funny play, but also poignant and challenging. It takes a well-known Shakespearean tale and turns it around, bringing new depth to the relationships and situations. It also boasts a first-rate cast of local performers. It’s another impressive, intriguing comedy by Aaron Posner, given a remarkable production at New Jewish Theatre.

Gary Wayne Barker
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting District Merchants at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until February 10, 2019.

 

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