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Posts Tagged ‘the merchant of venice’

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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