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Spine: Love, Greed, and Bigotry in The Folger’s ‘District Merchants’

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There’s no question that Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is a problem play, fraught with old hates that were once considered justified and old beliefs that have long lost their hold on the European mind.

Maren Bush (Portia) and Celeste Jones (Nessa). Photo by Teresa Wood Photography.

Portia (Maren Bush) and Nessa (Celeste Jones). Photo by Teresa Wood.

There is also no question that the Folger’s presentation of Aaron Posner’s reinvention of the play, under the title of District Merchants, addresses the play’s issues with humor, slangy lingo, current references, and a good heaping of contemporary sensibility.

Born in a society that still viewed “usury” as a sin (for the Elizabethan, “usury” meant the charging of any interest on loans at all), The Merchant of Venice‘s core disturbance could not be more remote to modern audiences. In fact, in today’s world even the 400% interest charged for payday loans is considered A-okay by most political elites.

In the Inferno, however, Dante reserved the seventh circle of hell (that’s only two away from Satan himself) for those who do violence against art (or the creations of the artisan, i.e., that which is created through their skilled labor). Making money off the labor of others through the charging of interest was only one such way. In other words, from the Elizabethan perspective, making money off of money is considered a crime against God.

Craig Wallace (Antoine) and Matthew Boston (Shylock). Photo by Teresa Wood Photography.

Craig Wallace (Antoine) and Matthew Boston (Shylock). Photo by Teresa Wood Photography.

By contrast, in modern America, making money from money has become our way of life; not only is it the fastest growing sector of the US economy, but the artisan is fast becoming a quaint relic of an archaic past, or possibly the hip painter, poet, or theatre artist who sells their “wares” to an expanding American upper class.

Yet, The Merchant of Venice rests firmly on a belief that considers such a practice sinful and, on the parallel assertion (or denial of fact), that Christians might have anything to do with that particular sin.

Hence, Shakespeare summons the anti-Semitic stereotype of Shylock, the Jewish money lender.

Given our society’s continuing struggle against anti-Semitic sentiments, modern producers focus more on this bigoted byproduct of the play than on its usurious core.

Aaron Posner is no exception.

In District Merchants Shakespeare’s 20-plus character play has been reduced to 8 principles, three sets of young lovers and two old men.

In Posner’s postmodern reinvention of the play, each character exists more as a time-hopping receptacle of sensibility than as a specific character within a place and time-bound plot. He or she is afforded the opportunity to stand before the audience and explain his or her perspective on life, on race and religion, on the meaning of existence through a “modern” lens.

This move on Posner’s part elevates the character’s subjectivity and, in some sense, makes the play more about these eight “aggregated beings” who happen to be involved in a somewhat connected story about love and a pound of flesh.

The old men are, of course, Shylock and Antoine, played respectively by Matthew Boston and Craig Wallace.

Set in a post Civil War Washington, DC, Reconstruction is underway: America is being rebuilt after a bloody war, and Antoine (an African American) represents a rising new order with his opportunity to make it big by brokering loans to free and newly freed blacks.

Shylock, however, holds the purse strings, doling out money as he sees fit and as the market will bear; and recently, Shylock has been rejecting clients that Antoine has sent him and, thus, denied Antoine the financial commissions his brokering would earn.

One such client is the ultra-light-skinned “mulatto” Benjamin Bassanio (played by Seth Rue), who needs money not to start a business or build a home, but to “pass”  and woo a rich (and white) northeastern lady, Portia (played by Maren Bush), with whom he is smitten. If he can succeed, his fortune will be secured.

Lorenzo (the white lover) is another fortune seeking young man (played by William Vaughan). He woos Jessica, Shylock’s daughter (played by Dani Stoller). Like Benjamin, Lorenzo’s motivation is also clouded by financial reward. If she will steal her father’s money and jewels, he too will have a successful life. The fact that he says he is willing to marry her anyway does not detract from those less than honorable desires.

Dani Stoler (Jessica) and William Vaughan (Lorenzo). Photo by Teresa Wood Photography.

Dani Stoler (Jessica) and William Vaughan (Lorenzo). Photo by Teresa Wood Photography.

Both Portia and Jessica are strong, seemingly independent young women. Portia dresses as a man and attends Harvard Law, whereas Jessica is devotedly religious and would never consider abandoning her Jewish faith, as the Jessica in Merchant of Venice does.

Even so, both of these young women fall victim to their fortune-seeking suitors, with Jessica even stealing her father’s money before she leaves with Lorenzo.

Of course, in the end, “love” conquers the suitors’ misogynistic, greedy selves, transforming them into decent young men and, thus, truly desirable husbands.

The other strong, determined young woman is Portia’s servant, Nessa (played by Celeste Jones). Her love interest is Shylock’s talkative servant, Lancelot (played by Akeem Davis). And the hope here is also that “love” will transform Lancelot into the desirable man that Nessa imagines him to be.

These three love stories dominate the production’s focus, overshadowing the troubles at the dark center of the story, the usurious Shylock and his rival Antoine, the carpetbagger.

By focusing on the love stories and on the transformation of the male psyche within the context of “love”, the play’s comic elements come to the fore. The malevolent core still resonates at times, but more as a potential dilemma than as an actual reality.

Posner’s art is his ability to present to audiences old stories lived through his own contemporary sensibility.

In this case, District Merchants becomes the odd fusion of Shakespeare, Reconstruction, and Aaron Posner himself. Where one begins and the another ends or begins or another begins or ends is not to be discerned.

In this postmodern mixture you have to take things as they come at you. You might laugh one moment and sit in disgust the next. Most importantly, however, you should not remember what you laughed at or what left you shaking your head in disgust because the last thing you want to experience is the shame of laughing or being disgusted during politically incorrect moments. Who knows whose sensibilities you might offend?

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including an intermission.

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District Merchants plays through July 3, 2016 at the Folger Theatre – 201 East Capitol Street SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 544-7077, or purchase them online.

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