Aired on KSDS-FM on 10/21/16
RUN DATES: 10/2/16 – 10/23/16
VENUE: South Coast Repertory
It’s always been a ‘problem play,’ even though Shakespeare’s First Folio lists it as a comedy. But Aaron Posner, lifelong adapter and provocateur, isn’t intimidated by “The Merchant of Venice.”
In his version, “District Merchants,” the Jews aren’t the only battered, beleaguered minority. Posner sets his drama in post-Civil War Washington, D.C. during Reconstruction.
This merchant, Antoine, is a prosperous, free-born black man. His friend, Benjamin Bassanio, for whom he borrows $3000 from the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, is passing as white, to woo the smart, sassy Portia; she’s passing as a man, to obtain a Harvard education. And the young gold-digger who elopes with Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, is poor Irish.
This stew is peppered with bigotry and racism. In one of the play’s most potent, in-your-face moments, Shylock demonstrates to an audience member just what it feels like to be relentlessly demeaned and debased.
Posner reveals more of why Shylock is so adamant about demanding his bond, as stipulated in the craziest of all literary contracts: if the debt is not repaid, the borrower has to forfeit a pound of flesh.
In this re-conception, Shylock ignores the legal wisdom of Portia in the seminal courtroom scene. He demands his bond, wields a menacing knife, and seems to get off free. Posner even toys with who converts and why.
His most inspired scenes are inflammatory in a whole new way. But the play drags in places and feels too long. There doesn’t seem to be a reason for some of the dramaturgical choices, like having the characters break the fourth wall repeatedly to introduce or explain the action. That’s the problem; too much is spelled out. Little is left for the audience to fill in.
The South Coast Rep’s West coast premiere is stunning to look at and, under the direction of Michael Michetti, impeccably performed.
Though set 150 years in the past, the play feels very close and personal. As this incendiary election has shown, discrimination and intolerance never seem to go out of style.
©2016 PAT LAUNER, San Diego Theater Reviews