Playwright Aaron Posner’s intentions in writing District Merchants, his version of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, are admirable, and his skill as a writer seems more than fitted to the task. A few years ago, the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company staged a fine version of Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird — a take on Chekhov’s The Seagull — and the script proved funny and clever, irreverent yet oddly reverent, too. Now Miners Alley is offering Posner’s District Merchants in a regional premiere. It’s an inspired choice by director Len Matheo, given the murky political times that we live in. But while there are a lot of good things in this play, ultimately it doesn’t hold together.
The Merchant of Venice is considered a problem play primarily because of the character of Jewish money lender Shylock, who traps virtuous merchant Antonio into signing a loan secured by a pound of his own flesh and demands the full and lethal payment when Antonio defaults. But almost no one in the play is free of taint. The supposedly virtuous characters denigrate and spit on Shylock. The heroine, Portia, is distinctly racist. And Shylock isn’t the only one obsessed with money. Young Bassanio seems as interested in Portia for her wealth as for herself. Still, all of this is in tune with Shakespeare’s times, and thanks to the playwright’s miraculously large soul, he could also empathize with his despised outcast: Shylock’s “I am a Jew” is one of the most powerful speeches in dramatic history.
A thoughtful exploration of these ambiguities, Posner’s play focuses on discrimination, race, class and the way suffering can breed rage and a thirst for revenge as easily as empathy. Though the action is set in Washington, D.C., during the Reconstruction Era, the characters’ thoughts and struggles also apply to our times. The first act sticks fairly closely to Shakespeare’s plot, adding a couple of surprises, while the second diverges more. Throughout, the characters stop the action to address the audience directly and discuss what’s just happened, each from his or her own viewpoint.
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Antonio is Antoine, a free black man and a wealthy merchant. Cris Davenport gives the role stature and dignity, though he’s a touch less effective in the dramatic courtroom scene. Benjamin Bassanio, a nicely naturalistic Sinjin Jones, woos Portia, lively and charming as played by Candace Joice, without telling her that he’s part black; Kristina Lorice Fountaine is terrific as Nessa, Portia’s wise and equally lively maid. Unlike his Shakespearean namesake, Shylock’s servant Lancelot feels pity for his abusive master and returns to work for him after Jessica’s departure; Isaiah Kelley is a standout in the role. Amy Elizabeth Gray is a poised Jessica, and her affair with her abductor, Finneus Randall, a Catholic Irishman played with rambunctious energy by Sean Michael Cummings, is a hoot. Chris Kendall is a local treasure, and it would be worth seeing this production for his complex and agonized Shylock alone.
This is rich soil. You have a Jew locked in struggle with a black man, both of them equally wealthy, both very aware of the traumas their people have endured, though Antoine wants to rise proudly above the past — which isn’t really possible, of course — while Shylock is lost in it. They understand each other; they may half-like each other. There’s the moment when Portia finds out that the man she loves is half black, and is rendered speechless; there’s also the unconsciously condescending way she treats Nessa, though she herself experiences discrimination as a woman. But the issues are talked about in those monologues rather than dramatized in character and action, and they periodically become preachy.
It doesn’t help that Shakespeare himself towers over the production. When fragments of his actual text appear, they emphasize the peril of trying to update and casualize the dialogue. Shylock’s “You spat at me” to Antoine doesn’t begin to match the exquisite fake courtesy of the original: “Fair sir, you spat on me on Wednesday last/You spurned me such a day; another time/You called me dog — and for these courtesies/I’ll lend you thus much monies?” Later, as Finneus and Jessica look up at the night sky, you prepare for verbal music: “There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st/But in his motion like an angel sings/Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins...” Instead, they just check quickly for the three small stars that signify the end of the Sabbath.
District Merchants, presented by Miners Alley Playhouse through June 24, 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden, 303-935-3044, minersalley.com.