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Entertainment & Arts

Review: ‘Merchant of Venice’ set in post-Civil War America? That’s Aaron Posner’s ‘District Merchants’

Chris Butler, Helen Sage Howard Simpson and Kristy Johnson in South Coast Repertory’s 2016 production of ​​"District Merchants” by ​Aaron Posner.
Chris Butler, Helen Sage Howard Simpson and Kristy Johnson in South Coast Repertory’s 2016 production of ​​"District Merchants” by ​Aaron Posner.
(Debora Robinson / South Coast Repertory )

Three years ago, theater artist Aaron Posner had a postmodern field day updating Chekhov in his frisky comedy with the unprintable title that we’ve taken to politely calling “Stupid … Bird.” It turned out that the navel-gazing characters from “The Seagull” and other masterpieces from the Russian playwright had utterly recognizable contemporary equivalents.

In “District Merchants,” Posner’s latest act of insouciant reconstruction, the source of dramatic inspiration is Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” The result, however, is a far less congenial mix of sensibilities.

Shakespeare seems more distant in this adaptation, while Posner’s cutting-edge techniques come off as recycled and even a little dated. The characters, belonging neither fully to Shakespeare’s world nor Posner’s, are left stranded between Elizabethan comedy and hyperactive 21st century meta-theater.  

The work, now at South Coast Repertory,  leaves the impression of a graduate school project — part thesis, part creative writing exercise. Directed by Michael Michetti, who staged “Stupid … Bird” with such fizzy exuberance at Pasadena’s Boston Court Performing Arts Center, this plucky production isn’t able to transform “District Merchants” into a functional play. 

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Part of the difficulty is the match-up. Posner overlays Shakespeare’s controversial romantic comedy, in which anti-Semitism rears its ugly head in the treatment of the moneylender Shylock, with the complex story of race in America after the Civil War. “District Merchants” is set in Washington, D.C., and Belmont, Mass., in the period of Reconstruction — a far cry from magical, mercantile, money-obsessed Venice and Portia’s enchanted island.   

Shylock (Matthew Boston) is an immigrant who fled pogroms in Ukraine. Antoine DuPre (Montae Russell), modeled on Antonio, the title character of Shakespeare’s play, is a freeborn black man who borrows money from Shylock to help his financially strapped friend Benjamin Bassanio (Chris Butler) win Portia’s heart and fortune.

Like most of the characters in Shakespeare’s original, Bassanio can be seen as both sincere and mercenary. He is at once a romantic who has finally found true love and a gold-digger who knows he’s hit the lottery. He retains these contradictory characteristics in “District Merchants,” but Posner complicates his quest by transforming him into a character who’s trying to pass as a white man.

Portia (Helen Sage Howard Simpson) is often held up as the heroine of “The Merchant of Venice,” the fetching mastermind who saves Antonio from Shylock’s revenge with her shrewd courtroom maneuvering, but she is a more slippery figure than her oft-quoted “Quality of Mercy” speech suggests.

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Posner’s Portia, like Shakespeare’s, isn’t always able to live up to her high-minded ideals. She makes unthinkingly racist comments to Nessa (Kristy Johnson), her challengingly clever waiting woman (whose mother was a slave until bought by Portia’s free-thinking father) and confesses that she’s not quite progressive enough to fall in love with a black man, though that is what she has unwittingly done.

The lead-up to Bassanio and Portia’s crisis is clumsily handled. The first half dispenses exposition in a cumbersome manner. Time is spent setting up the historical period and the locales and introducing the various characters, who narrate their dilemmas for us in language that often makes them sound like the playwright.

The plots are turned into a stew. Posner dawdles on the elopement of Finneus (Matthew Grondin), an Irish version of Shakespeare’s party-boy Lorenzo, and Jessica (Rachel Esther Tate), Shylock’s daughter who’s in cahoots with her father’s impish servant, Lancelot (Akeem Davis).

I’m not sure which is more distracting, the departures from Shakespeare’s tale or the points of overlap;  the excerpts of famous speeches that are recited (Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes,” Portia’s paean to mercy) seem like borrowed glory.

Similar to “Stupid … Bird,” the characters of “District Merchants” routinely step away from the action to directly address the audience. This breaching of the fourth wall doesn’t always come naturally to them. The accents that are employed — Yiddish for Shylock, a brogue for Finneus — have a cartoonish quality, but it hardly matters because the words they speak all have the generic ring of annotation. These aren’t characters so much as commentaries on characters.

Posner has plenty of experience with Shakespeare. (“District Merchants” was commissioned and originally produced by the Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library.) I wasn’t all that impressed with the glitzy production of “The Tempest” that he adapted and directed with Teller (of Penn & Teller), which I first saw at Las Vegas’ Smith Center for the Performing Arts and later at South Coast Rep. But it’s clear that Posner has thought hard about the competing value systems in “The Merchant of Venice” — the way the hypocritical force of money drives communities together and tears them apart.

Shakespeare isn’t the only influence here; “District Merchants” also seems indebted to “An Octoroon,” Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ audacious reworking of the Dion Boucicault melodrama. But Posner’s source material, being of a much finer grain, isn’t as easy to horse around with. Not only isn’t his deconstruction as stylishly pulled off as Jacobs-Jenkins’, but Shakespeare’s genius also overshadows Posner’s efforts.

Daniel Conway’s busy pile of a set suggesting an arcade, a courthouse and a construction site is as unsettling as the hectic script. It’s only in the production’s second half, when the narrative pace slows and Bassanio and Portia are given time to dissect their conflicted feelings for each other, that Posner’s ostentatiously artificial play finds its poise.  

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‘District Merchants’

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Ends Oct. 23

Tickets: $30-$79

Contact: www.scr.org or (714) 708-5555

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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