“America is the worst place for the Jews. Except for all the other places.” Shylock in District Merchants
What a year it has been for Shakespeare fans. Theaters celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death have staged his works in many forms. The Folger Theatre (home of the Folger Shakespeare Library) last gifted us with the very humorous William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged), and now presents a contemporary version of The Merchant of Venice.
The title – District Merchants – is the first tip off that we’re not in Venice in the 1500s. Playwright Aaron Posner said that after reading a passage of Shylock’s about slavery, “it made me wonder how this story would function in post-Civil War America.” District Merchants is set in the 1870s in Washington, D.C., but the issues dealt with – immigration, racism, anti-Semitism, income inequality, and the marginalization of women – are incredibly relevant, particularly in light of our current presidential campaign. We see a society in transition. Virtually ever character in the play is on the outside looking in, eager to become part of the new order, but struggling to fit in. As one character says: “People like me don’t have the code. We’re not in the game, so we lose every time.”
Craig Wallace and Matthew Boston
The scenery signals the beginning of reconstruction, with massive columns and iron girders filling the stage and the sounds of building echoing throughout the theater. Shylock (Matthew Boston) is still a Jew, but rather than a Venetian moneylender, he’s now an immigrant who lost his wife and some of his children to disease during the long journey to America. He dotes on his surviving daughter, Jessica (Dani Stoller), but his anxiety to keep her safe threatens to stifle her emerging womanhood.
Shylock’s counterpart is Antoine (Craig Wallace), a black who proudly tells others that he was born a free man, a legacy of his father who fought and died a hero in the War of 1812. Although Antoine dresses like a prosperous businessman, he doesn’t have the resources of Shylock and borrows three thousand pounds to help his protege, Benjamin Bassani (Seth Rue), woo the wealthy Portia (Maren Bush). When Antoine fails to pay the money back on time, Shylock demands his pound of flesh. The dramatic court scene will determine the outcome.
Dani Stoller and William Vaughan
Shakespeare’s Merchant is still jarring to modern audiences; it’s portrayal of Shylock and its themes seen as anti-Semitic. Posner doesn’t water down these xenophobic comments, rather the audience gets a dose of what it’s like to withstand a constant barrage of slights and insults. During each performance, Boston points to someone sitting in the audience, asks the person’s name, then proceeds to use that name in a sneering, disrespectful way. (At the performance I attended, the person singled out was named David who admitted the barbs felt “nasty.”)
Shylock notes that during the reconstruction period in America, there were 1,500 Jews living in Washington, D.C. A parallel is drawn between the discrimination experienced not only by the blacks, but also by Jews like Shylock. The confrontations between Shylock and Antoine come off as a game of one-upmanship – who has suffered and continues to suffer the most.
(Left to right) Seth Rue, Dani Stoller, William Vaughan, and Maren Bush
The contrast between the haves and the have-nots plays out in the love affairs of the two young and seemingly mismatched couples. Lorenzo (William Vaughan), an uneducated and unpolished country boy, is attracted to the beautiful and intelligent, Jessica, who agrees to steal all her father’s cash and gold and flee with her beau to, of all places, Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Maren Bush and Celeste Jones
Meanwhile, Portia, who has conflicted feelings about blacks, is falling in love with Benjamin, whom she believes is white. Portia’s servant, Nessa (an excellent Celeste Jones), is loyal to her mistress but critical of her opinions. “She was born with blinders on and every day people tell her she has perfect vision,” Nessa says. When Benjamin finally tells Portia he’s black, Bush makes the most of the moment – her facial expressions changing from joyous to sadness several times before she delivers her final decision.
Despite the heavy themes, District Merchants has humorous moments, thanks not only to Vaughn’s antics as Lorenzo but also to Akeem Davis who plays Shylock’s mistreated servant, Lancelot. Director Michael John Garcés keeps this talented cast moving at a lively pace. There’s rarely a moment when we aren’t entertained or challenged by what we are witnessing on stage.
Photos by Teresa Wood
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