Metro Weekly

Redistricting: District Merchants (review)

"District Merchants" contemplates race, religion and reality without the preacher

District Merchants: Photo Teresa Wood
District Merchants: Photo Teresa Wood

Folger’s reimagined Merchant of Venice contemplates race, religion and reality without the preacher

Just by virtue of Stupid Fucking Bird, Aaron Posner’s reinvention of Chekhov’s The Seagull, anything issuing from his pen should be given the benefit of the doubt. The reason being that Posner writes for an underserved audience: neurotics who like their humor fast and sharp and their hearts and minds challenged by an irreverent but secretly optimistic view of the human condition.

It’s all present and accounted for in his new play, District Merchants (starstarstar), a clever and literarily-imaginative rendering of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, set in a post-Civil War Washington D.C. in which Shylock’s rivals Antoine and Bassanio are African-American. Though it tracks the original plot, for Posner it is an opportunity to jet off into race and gender issues that have contemporary urgency and relevance: the experience of post-slavery Blacks; Jews in America; the relationship between Jews and Blacks; and what it means to be an outsider.

Posner works hard to understand and capture what he has not lived, and it shows. To all his loaded issues, Posner injects not only his usual brand of irreverent humor, but also a powerfully intelligent ambiguity. We don’t necessarily know there will be happy endings for the lovers and we don’t get any pat answers to its many moral questions. Posner’s characters and conundrums are just too complex.

This complexity, with all its moving parts, makes for a challenge the Folger production never quite conquers. It is partly in director Michael John Garces’ slightly ponderous execution, which allows pauses to drag and monologues to sound bookish. It is also that the play may be more readable than it is performable. Whatever it is, there is an absence of necessary oomph and only a few players buck the mood. Top of the list is Akeem Davis as manservant Lancelot. Arriving like he’s been sent to the rescue, Lancelot buzzes with the authentic agitation of life and eyes that betray worry for a world he can hustle, but never quite get. Next is Celeste Jones giving her Nessa, the rather stock wiser-than-her-boss servant, a compellingly peeved and expressive investment. As the two young women, heiress Portia and Shylock’s daughter Jessica, Maren Bush and Dani Stoller bring convincingly bright energies, but they have too little to play against in their less than convincing lovers. Finally, although Matthew Boston’s Shylock is nuanced and interestingly scary in his anger and ambivalence, his encounters with Craig Wallace’s impassive Antoine never sing.

Even if this production can’t quite drive Posner’s complex train, it’s a chance to think about race, religion and reality without the preacher.

District Merchants runs to July 3 at Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE. Tickets are $35 to $75. Call 202-544-7077 or visit folger.edu.

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