By Tristan Lejeune
Any Shakespeare production put up in D.C. comes with an added set of subtexts. 2016 Washington, like 1616 London, is the political center of the Western world, so the Bard’s fascination with power and the intersection of public and private spheres can carry extra weight when you’re steps from the Capitol or the Supreme Court.
All that goes double for productions actually SET in D.C., as with Folger’s clever District Merchants, which made its world premiere earlier this month and closes on July 3. An adaptation of The Merchant of Venice with a cast of only eight, the play is set in a Reconstruction-era American capital where anti-Semitism is hardly the most prevalent form of discrimination walking the streets.
The problem is at a certain point all the subtext(s) overwhelm everything else. Playwright Aaron Posner, known for breathing life into dusty scripts, has borrowed Shakespeare’s penchant for having characters explain themselves in soliloquies and asides to the audience. Did I say borrow? I meant run wild with. Characters discuss their pasts, their feelings, their relationship with the person to whom they are speaking, their hopes and dreams, recent meals they had… Above all, they talk about their place in society and what it means to exist in their own personal skin.
Man, do they talk. Even a bit of self-parody can’t make it seem like too much is actually happening in the endless monologues. At least they’re good talkers.
Race, religion, gender: it’s the identity trifecta. Just as Portia (Maren Bush) “passes” for a man in order to study law in Massachusetts, the mixed-race Bassanio (Seth Rue) passes for white in his pursuit of her. Of course, he’s half-white; is she half-man, or -male? Or do they simply assume and drop the masks at will? Watching the two navigate these spaces under Michael John Garcés’ level direction is one of District Merchants’ greatest theatrical pleasures.
The other is the interaction (and, yes, the speeches) from the two title characters. As a black man among the white bourgeoisie, Craig Wallace’s Antoine (we see what you did there) is by turns warm and gregarious, and then cynical and cutthroat. A character straight out of a Tom Wolfe novel, he’d love to help more African Americans achieve success, but his own is far more important.
Even better is Matthew Boston’s Shylock, a vicious miser who will still break your heart. Boston deliberately seems to overrun what would read on the page as his most powerful lines, but he’s making the audience keep up without wallowing in the emotions. The play pumps blood, sweat and tears into what many consider one of Elizabethan theatre’s most vile stereotypes.
Indeed, Posner has made wise choices all around in what he decided to change (e.g. Lorenzo converts to Jessica’s religion instead of the other way around) and what was too good to adapt away (the “quality of mercy” is not cut). And the technical staff is game, in particular Meghan Raham’s picture book costumes.
I don’t know if this show has much of a future after Folger’s current production. Will District Merchants find an audience far from the District? Maybe. But visitors from Washington should know when to stop talking.