Michael L. Quintos
- Los Angeles Critic
Coming off the heels of another politically-charged play ALL THE WAY that they presented last month, Orange County's Tony Award-winning regional theater South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa is following up that searing drama with a staging of a brand new production of playwright Aaron Posner's 'DISTRICT MERCHANTS,' a clever, thoughtful, and occasionally humorous re-imagining of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. This time around, the play—a self-aware comedic drama set during America's post-Civil War Reconstruction era—continues performances through October 23, 2016.
Using Shakespeare's play more as an outline (and occasional source of broad strokes) rather than a direct re-translation, Posner's new play—under the direction of Michael Michetti—introduces characters that merely have a glimmer of their Shakespearean inspirations intact. Instead, 'DISTRICT MERCHANTS' favors a narrative that examines race relations during an uneasy time in American history: when the nation was still grappling with the remnants of a bitter dispute between Northern and Southern States.
Much of the play happens within the political epicenter of Washington D.C. (where, apparently, "money matters"), represented here by Daniel Conway's impressive, purposely angled/disheveled, loose-brick-and-wood-scaffolding set that suggests a nation in very slow transition (Sean T. Cawelti's grunge projection designs and Garry Lennon's period costumes complete the motif). It's an unmissable, not-very-subtle metaphor for America as a continuous work-in-progress construction site, where the old ways are fighting incredibly hard to remain relevant alongside new, more future-thinking ideas that aren't fully upright just yet, whether for good or not.
Whichever side one was on during the war, the forward march towards progress carries with it an inescapable uncertainty equally felt by all. The emancipation of slaves may have been enacted as the law of the land, but that doesn't mean prejudice (and, at worst, violent acts) have also been erased away with it (painfully, even in 2016, prejudice still exists).
That uncertainty, naturally, is further stoked by fear, a powerful agent that—as we know from our current, wackadoo 21st Century political climate—can sway mindsets one way or another (obviously, Posner keenly inserts funny faux predictions of life far into the future from the events of the play with tongue planted firmly in cheek).
For 'DISTRICT MERCHANTS,' the title character of Shakespeare's original play is reintroduced in Posner's reboot as Antoine DuPre (an excellent Montae Russell), a relatively affluent free-born black man whose father—a freed former slave—paved the way for him to create a healthy business for himself during an era that does its best to squelch men like him from earning success. And though his freedom has given him better opportunities to thrive (he has never really known the true horrors that his fellow people of color have suffered under the shameful practice of slavery), he does know quite vividly that his skin color still opens up the likelihood of others (well, whites) to do him harm. Sound familiar?
Alas, armed with savvy knowledge, he has learned the best ways to maneuver himself in these choppy waters. He calls himself, without pretense, an "opportunistic philanthropist" or, perhaps, a "philanthropic opportunist"—doing good while, yes, reaping rewards while in an environment that is predisposed to prevent him from achieving either.
Thus he has an understandable need of some semblance of continued safety for his life and livelihood, while, at the same time, he wishes that his fellow men of color acquire first-hand knowledge of the possibilities available to them in this new, more hopeful era of progress.
It is this hopeful, optimistic vision that drives Antoine to help out a cash-strapped friend, the dapper Benjamin Bassanio (Chris Butler) a fellow free black man who is gleefully, head-over-heels in love with a woman—and her dowery. Benjamin, at the moment, is in desperate need for funds to help him appear wealthier than he really is, and, specifically, to win the affections (and, yes, the affluent lifestyle) of the ultra-posh Portia (Helen Sage Howard Simpson), a smart yet surprisingly aloof high society lady he is wooing in Massachusetts.
Portia happens to be white. To complicate things even more, Benjamin is trying to pass himself off as a white man to, perhaps, better win Portia's heart.
Funny (?) enough, Portia—while confiding to her maid Nessa (Kristy Johnson)—thinks her suitor Benjamin, while absolutely adorable, is "just so… black!" Yikes.
How can someone apparently so smart be this, um, naive?
While Portia may exude sweetness, she does reek of white privilege. The audience, naturally, shares Nessa's WTF reactions. We soon learn that Nessa has to contend with her employer's "accidental" racism now and again whenever she shares her uncensored thoughts about the world. But unbeknownst to Portia, Nessa is well aware of Benjamin's real racial makeup. And yet despite this disconnect, Nessa shows some empathy towards her employer—it's clear to her that Portia herself is genuinely falling in love with Benjamin, too, and helps her along out of loyalty. (When Portia finds out the truth later, it's quite a piercing moment).
But, surprise! Portia herself has secrets of her own. She wants to pursue a career as a lawyer—an occupation reserved solely for men. But in order to pursue her desire to promote justice in the world, Portia often disguises herself in male drag to pass herself off as a man while attending law school. For the most part, she is successful in her illegal (though, ultimately, harmless) deception.
But the real meat of the story (as was in Shakespeare's original) is, of course, the unusual deal between two businessmen at the play's center.
To help a buddy out, Antoine agrees to aid Benjamin's quest by securing him a loan from local banker Shylock (a riveting Matthew Boston), a cantankerous curmudgeon who mistrusts anyone and anything that appears to threaten his livelihood or his family. Played to unfortunate—and, some would say, extremely anti-Semitic—stereotypes in Shakespeare's original text, Posner's re-envisioned Shylock is considerably less so, portraying him as a much more complex, deeply scarred man who still harbors the wounds of his past, which has shaped the apparently disagreeable man he has become.
Shockingly, Shylock agrees to fund Antoine's loan request under one unusual provision—that if Antoine reneges on their agreement and defaults on payment, Shylock is owed a "pound of flesh" from Antoine himself. Quite a sadistic punishment, right?
But Posner's Shylock receives some strategic empathy via a heartbreaking backstory: he and his father escaped vicious Eastern European pogroms for a better life in America. Though he's monetarily successful, he still feels disenfranchised and unfairly regarded. This bubbling resentment allows, I suppose, for the character to have somewhat justifiable motivations for his always-cautious attitude and hostile business style.
Shylock's cautiousness trickles down even to the way he is super-protective of his only daughter Jessica (Rachel Esther Tate), who herself longs for nothing but to escape the "prison" she has been mostly confined to, thanks to his father's fear of the outside world. As one might have foreseen, people entrapped always try their hardest to make it out. And in this case, Jessica's liberation is helped along by her own budding romance with hipster-looking Finneus (Matthew Grondin), a charming Irish immigrant and is also a possibly not-so-up-and-up associate of Benjamin's. Despite their opposing points of view, the two genuinely fall in love with each other.
To those familiar with Shakespeare's original story, (spoiler alert) similar circumstances happen here: Antoine, of course, is unable to come up with payment (uh, thanks a lot, 1873 stock market crash!) And, as expected, stubborn Shylock fervently demands his "piece" of Antoine and tries to get it in a courtroom when Antoine refuses (he won't even implicate his friend). There is, of course, no escaping the loaded context that both Shylock and Antoine—who are essentially perceived as "others" by the mostly white society that surrounds them—are both intensely stringent in getting the better of each other, rather than harmoniously working together.
Hilariously observing and commenting on it all is Shylock's bumbling but remarkably aware manservant Lancelot (scene-stealing Akeem Davis), who, despite a self-perceived ignorance on how to navigate his life ("people like me don't know the code"), is actually the most stable and open-minded of them all. He continually struggles with doing the right thing, and wondering if he actually is. And judging by his always welcome presence every time the character (and Davis) appears, we're pretty sure it's the latter. (Not surprisingly, he even gets the girl!)
Through it all, though, 'DISTRICT MERCHANTS' subscribes to a recurring theme:
"There are things you must do to survive" … particularly when one is in an environment that doesn't support or condone what may possibly be a "good" thing.
This means, at least in the context of this story, that people constantly strive to justify the many somewhat questionable things involved with human nature. This may include pretending to be someone you're not to get a leg up, demanding what you're owed (and what you deserve) by any means, looking the other way even in the presence of injustice; and sacrificing happiness in favor of, well, not getting killed or ostracized.
And, as one can probably surmise, the time period and setting of 'DISTRICT MERCHANTS'—while far enough away from current times—still resonates with some of the issues that are still very much top-of-mind in today's increasingly divided nation. That seems to be a motivating machination for Posner's update, which dispels several direct-to-the-audience monologues/sermons about each character's raison d'être to further punctuate this theme.
While certainly well-meaning (and even, at times, fiercely heart wrenching) some may find much of these monologues to be a bit too much on the preachy side, knocking the audience not with a subtle narrative push but a with a huge Hey You! wallop—easily pausing the forward momentum of the story in several key spots.
There were several moments when the actors directly converse with audience members, sometimes even compelling them to answer back. Depending on who the actors happen to talk to at their given bits of audience participation at a performance, it could either be a special moment of collective catharsis and connectivity, or a spectacularly awkward face-plant. Luckily, it doesn't come quite to the latter during the opening weekend matinee I experienced—but it still felt a bit of a struggle to get the audience to fully commit to this fourth-wall-breaking, over-reaching device employed in the play.
And therein lies the play's only flaw in my mind—its constant, almost choppy switcheroo from dark moments to light ones that sometimes feel as disorganized as the piles of rubble that line the set. While I do very much appreciate the moments of levity in between the more morose ones, some are a bit erratically arranged with not much breathing room. It's super-serious one minute then amusingly droll the very next, which can get jarring at times. Sure, it's not a complete deal breaker, but it is certainly a cause for concern in any future productions of this play, particularly in the first act. Luckily, thanks to the winning, exuberant performances of this incredible cast, the play blurs many of these delineations a bit more.
But with that said, however, 'DISTRICT MERCHANTS' still manages to genuinely move you in between the chuckles, particularly its post-courtroom coda that, admittedly, had me crying a bit. It's most important take-away lesson: Love wins over fear. It's a mantra many of us already know before seeing this play, but it's certainly a welcome reminder.
* Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ *
Photos by Debora Robinson for South Coast Repertory.
Aaron Posner's 'DISTRICT MERCHANTS' continues performances at South Coast Repertory through October 23, 2016. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.