The truth within a lie. Isn’t that a quaint little sentence that sums up Shakespeare or most of it at any rate? It is if you’re playwright Aaron Posner and you’ve been commissioned to step away from your exceedingly brilliant modern riffs on Chekhov and step into a variation on the Bard’s The Merchant of Venice. Closing out the 2015/2016 season at Folger Theatre, Posner’s latest world premiere District Merchants, directed by Michael John Garcés, is a compelling piece of poignant theatrical gold that puts the world in perspective through the focal lens of the American Reconstruction era and the tale of Shylock as his vehicle. Astonishingly well written, exceptionally performed, and galvanizing in the way in which only Posner’s works can be, District Merchants is a gripping social commentary on race, religion, and the overall failures of humanity where the basic principles of love have been too easily shunned in the face of greed, oppression, and blatant hatred.
Posner plops the play down in the 1870’s right in the burgeoning metropolis of Washington DC. Scenic Designer Tony Cisek takes that setting and runs with it. The set is quite literally monumental in both structure and stature, with both an eerie familiarity and strange displacement to behold in its appearance. Marble columns jut upward like the front of any historical courthouse in the district, some still wrapped in packing material as if they were in the process of having been freshly delivered, while others are only partially erected— tilted forward on an angle as if in mid-hoist to their fully upright state or missing their cap, which hovers suspended directly over it— capturing the illusion of history’s literal reconstruction frozen mid-process. Cisek places the set on a curious angle, allowing its magnitude to cut a diagonal back across the play space rather than exist in a purely horizontal linearity.
Coming together to support the vision of Director Michael John Garcés, Lighting Designer Geoff Korf, Sound Designer James Bigbee Garver, and Musical Composer Christylez Bacon craft visual and aural components of the show that augment the already amazing nature of the show’s aesthetic. Garver’s preshow soundscape immerses the audience in the reality of the world they are about to experience, which is ripped unapologetically from them in Posner’s opening exchange of fourth-wall discourse that starts the play. Outdoing the late 19th century sounds of construction and horse-drawn carriages on cobblestone streets, Garver’s stone-grinding SFX featured leading into the court room scene are quite striking. Bacon’s musical interludes, which cover the brief crossfades from scene to scene, feel appropriately informed by the religious element that dominates a good deal of the show’s discourse. Korf’s ability to transform location and time is impressive, though subtle; his finest work is the mock campfire created by simplistic foot-lighting in a small section of the stage.
Curious does not begin to describe the delightful duds Costume Designer Meghan Raham displays throughout the production. For the most part each character is afforded one costume but Raham ensures that it speaks not only to the time period of the play, with hints of retro modernism slipped subtly into these selections, but to the economic stature and social standing of each individual character. Raham’s work on Jessica’s costume in particular is praiseworthy in the utmost, as well as her design for the fitted red coat featured on Portia. Clothes certainly make the man, in any case, but especially in this case where a fancy fur-trimmed jacket marks Antoine as an upper-class man of wealth while scrubby pants and matching cap denote Lancelot to be of the servant class.
Words will be woefully inadequate to properly praise Posner for his latest work and all that it accomplishes under the keen direction of Michael John Garcés. Employing his trademark fourth-wall obliterating tactics early on, when the pivotal courtroom scene occurs, Posner brings it directly to the audience in a deeply profound and brutally jarring manner. His ability to turn a phrase while drawing out relevant commentary on broad topics like civil liberties, racial and religious discrimination, and financial disparity is tremendously astute and gives the idea behind Shakespeare’s play earnest grounding in a modern relevance despite being set a full 140 years in the past. Implementing character asides— another signature of Posner’s work— becomes quite comical in this production as they happen in such quick succession as to almost overlap between two characters. There’s even a character who has a penchant for soliloquizing, which becomes a comic bit when he’s forced not to do so.
With equal portions of humor and flippancy to balance out the heavier subject matters addressed in the work, Posner finds a happy medium between the comedic aspects and dramatic elements of the story he’s refurbishing. Honing in on the flaws in human nature— philanthropic opportunism and opportunistic philanthropy to name a few— Posner keeps the audience engaged, creeping toward the edges of their seats as the tension grows on a steady and almost exponential incline as the play’s conclusion draws near. Despite knowing the tale, there is no point in the show where the words, order of events, or actions between characters feels like a forgone conclusion. This is the combined efforts of Posner’s genius and Garcés’ ingenuity as a director.
Shakespeare wouldn’t be Shakespeare without his twit-witted ingénues in love; naturally Posner’s take on the Bard is no different. Jessica (Dani Stoller) and Lorenzo (William Vaughan) are two such young lovers and fall in step with one another’s adorably awkward flirtations as the play progresses. Stoller and Vaughan portray the pair respectively like two coy moths caught and consumed by the dazzling, blazing flame of the other. Vaughan, who affects a slight southern twang to his cowboy-inspired character, is earnest in his emotional displays toward Stoller’s character. Their tender and touching exchange of sentiment during the star-hunt for the Sabbath scene tugs at the heartstring
Possessed of diarrhea of the mouth, Lancelot (Akeem Davis) appears to exist primarily for comic influence if not relief. Going off the rails in his rant about what will happen to his character if he follows Jessica’s orders, Davis delivers with conviction these theatrically heightened moments that occur to him frequently throughout the performance. There is something inspiring and relatable in his asides— even when they are interrupted by Nessa (Celeste Jones)— and Davis’ overall conduct as the servant character fits believably into the world Posner has reimagined inside of Shakespeare’s work. Jones, delivers with profundity the dualistic nature of Nessa, is an active presence in the play, devoting a great deal of her existence to silent reactive facial responses. As Portia’s confidante, Jones’ Nessa is both humorous and devoted. Watching the cheeky chemistry arise between her character and Davis’ character is right on par with the love-story that befalls the aforementioned ingénues.
Though not as plagued with the verbal verbosity as Lancelot Portia (Maren Bush) does run long of speech a good deal throughout the performance. Bush’s perky attitude and poppy nature is wildly entertaining. Showcasing her extreme versatility when it comes to mining the dynamic depths of the character, Bush stuns the audience in a harrowing moment where a simple confession of “not being big enough” all but brings the stones down around her and Benjamin Bassanio (Seth Rue.) The flirtations between the pair are not subtle, nor are they intended to be, but the discourse and confessions between them in the second act are brutally honest (followed by a reprise of mirthful moments) that easily sparks a conflagration in the heart, a war in the mind, and a confusion in the soul. Rue’s portrayal of Bassanio is on point, particularly when it comes to his internal conflict of finding his place in the world. His initial aside is riveting as it addresses the vicious cycle of the black man trying to take up the opportunity that America offers to him but simultaneously will not let him have.
The powerhouse performances in the show fall to the shoulders of Craig Wallace, portraying Antoine, and Matthew Boston, portraying Shylock. While the remainder of the cast is exquisite in what they do, Wallace and Boston deliver phenomenal portrayals of both these men and work superbly with the material that Posner has provided for them. The harrowing outcry rooted in freedom delivered by Wallace in the courtroom scene is enough to draw forth tears. His overall versatility in the role is astonishing as well; the range of emotions he portrays over the course of the show’s events is nothing short of remarkable. The tension crafted between his character and Boston’s is thrilling, especially as the situation escalates leading up to the courtroom scene.
Boston is a sensation as Shylock. Taking Posner’s words, which go about humanizing Shylock in a way that Shakespeare never could, Boston exposes the Marianas Trench of vulnerability in the Jewish moneylender. Shouting down the heavens at the end of act one, Boston bares Shylock’s soul in a raw and emotionally provoked monologue with bleeding emotions that pour from the depths of his soul. Posner strips away the greed that Shakespeare shaded that moment with, mentioning only once the fortune that has been stolen from him and choosing instead to focus upon the heartbreaking detriment of losing a daughter. But that moment is only the penultimate glory of Boston’s performance. The courtroom scene from start to finish is played to the height of emotional integrity and with surging intensity, so much so that it feels almost too real in a sense. Single-handedly undoing all of Shylock’s humanity that he carefully crafted into the closing monologue of act one, Boston demonizes the character and then gashes afresh the raw vein of his deeply wounded humanity all in the space of a breath. Gripping and utterly gut-wrenching, Boston’s portrayal of Shylock is unrivaled in its emotional honesty and consistency.
With profundity that transcends so many levels of so many relevant and modern topics in today’s society, Posner’s commissioned work has a great deal to say, but will only be heard if you come to The Folger Theatre and see the show.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
District Merchants plays through July 3, 2016 at the Folger Theatre in the Folger Shakespeare Library— 201 E. Capitol Street SE in Washington DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 544-7077 or purchase them online.