We Stay for Our Bond
By Aaron Posner, based on William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice
Folger Theatre, Washington, D.C.
Thursday, June 9, 2016, F–11&13 (left stalls)
Directed by Michael John Garcés
Shylock (Matthew Boston) presses his knife to the breast of Antoine (Craig Wallace) in the Folger Theatre's production of Aaron Posner's District Merchants, an adaptation of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Below, Jessica (Dani Stoller) enjoys the evening with Lorenzo (William Vaughan) as Benjamin Bassanio (Seth Rue) and Portia (Maren Bush) wait in tableaux in the background. Photos by Teresa Wood, the Folger Theatre.
Portia’s famous speech about the quality of mercy in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice comes off as naïvely silly when you hear it in Aaron Posner’s District Merchants. It's a matter of time, place, and circumstances—of both the characters and the audience—yet that is one of the keen, chilling insights you get from this outsiders-in rewrite of Shakespeare’s play.
Slicing, dicing, rearranging, and revising Shakespeare’s texts almost always diminish their dramatic qualities, poetic power, insights, and core values (which, generally, are intentionally ambiguous). However, crossing the line from altering to adapting sometimes brings you back closer to the spirit of Shakespeare's works by exploring their themes from a whole new perspective.
Thus it is with District Merchants, Posner’s revision of The Merchant of Venice commissioned by the Folger Theatre. By shifting the play’s place and time to Washington, D.C., in the 1870s and playing the race card as well as ethnicity issues in reimagining the characters, Posner shines a luminous light on the original play’s key points while laying bare the elements that really bother us 21st century Americans about The Merchant of Venice—and what bothers us is not merely the play’s anti-Semitism.
I have had a love-hate regard for Posner’s work as a director. I love his work—I hate what he does to Shakespeare’s work. The man’s creative genius in staging Shakespeare's plays is astonishing. He used puppets for the secondary characters in the comical yet dramatic Measure for Measure. To play all but the four young lovers in a hilarious Two Gentlemen of Verona, Posner cast three of D.C.’s top actresses who wear masks for each part (including two-sided masks to create a gang of six outlaws). He presented The Comedy of Errors in the framework of a fully realized provincial English amateur theater company, the Worcestershire Mask and Wig Society, complete with a documentary film on the company’s production of The Comedy of Errors. He teamed with the magician Teller to stage a thrilling Macbeth.
All great stuff—except he also fiddles over-much with the texts: not just cuts but more-clever-than-effective transpositions of scenes, reassigned lines, interpolations of unnecessary elements, and streamlined plots that end up more convoluted than Shakespeare’s. Posner's stated approach is to give fresh readings to the plays; the appearance is a delusion that he’s smarter than Shakespeare.
However, he gains an advantage on Shakespeare when he works from the outside in, using only Shakespeare’s plot and themes—and some of the play’s most important lines—as the foundation for an entirely new play. It’s his work, his perspective, his genius leaning on rather than challenging Shakespeare; and it turns out to be great Shakespeare by being singularly Posner’s work. He has scored a critical and commercial success with his rewrite of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull as Stupid F**king Bird. Now, he has another critical success with District Merchants, and buzz indicates the play has commercial legs beyond its world premiere at the Folger.
Posner significantly set District Merchants in the middle of post–Civil War Reconstruction, when the economy was thriving and a new economic class—free blacks—was emerging. That points to Posner’s more important decision: to pit Shylock against an African-American named Antoine as the pair of titular merchants. Along with class and ethnic conflict, false appearances is a primary theme of Shakespeare’s play, in particular how people disguise themselves for social acceptance: Bassanio pretends to be rich as he courts Portia; Portia pretends to be a man as she mounts the courtroom defense of Antonio. Portia does the same in District Merchants, but turning her into a liberal-leaning, Boston socialite proves to be one of that play’s most poignant elements. Meanwhile, Benjamin Bassanio is a light-skinned African-American passing as white. He enlists financial help from Antoine without revealing that the woman he is courting is white.
“Reconstruction was a process of addressing our national problem, the original sin of slavery, the creation of an ‘other’ that is crucial in our national narrative and underpinned the creation of our unprecedented economy growth and power,” writes the production’s director, Michael John Garcés, in his program notes. “For an American—for myself—it is hard to understand Shylock’s anger, and thus his actions. I wonder if it would have been so hard in Elizabethan England. Or Germany in the 1930s. I wonder if we’d have such a hard time understanding that anger, the rage, and righteousness behind his actions if Shylock were a black man in America. In the antebellum South. In Compton in the '90s. In Ferguson today.”
That's the key that enables District Merchants to open the door to the monster of truth residing in the subtext of The Merchant of Venice, especially when regarded from our 21st century perspective. Post-Holocaust, we empathize with Shylock as he is victimized by racist Christians, but we conveniently ignore the insidious economic, moral, and political abuse Shylock endures in the play—abuse that endures in our own society, but toward people of a different color. By incorporating race beyond the Jewish Shylock, District Merchants forces us to deal with our own individual and collective prejudices.
Posner uses direct-address speeches from the characters to stir up the audience's conscience. The action opens with Shylock (Matthew Boston) and Antoine (Craig Wallace) together filling us in on the action’s setting and background. They do the same at the start of the play’s second half and at the end as a sort of “what happened to them” coda. Shylock is essentially Shakespeare’s Shylock, but he does get some back-story texture when, upon Jessica’s stealing away with all his horded wealth, he laments to the spirit of late wife Leah the difficulties of raising their daughter on his own. Jessica chafes at her father’s strict restrictions on her, but we see in his lament how his motives derived from the toil of single parenthood and his concern over her naïveté in a ruthlessly racist world.
Antoine is not only a man of color, he has never been a slave, thanks to his father earning his own freedom. Antoine wears his status as a pre-Emancipation Proclamation free black as a badge of his elite status among African Americans, which allows him to profit from moving freed slaves into America’s economic engine. “I’m an opportunistic philanthropist, or philanthropic opportunist. Or just call me an American,” he says. District Merchants’ plots parallel that of The Merchant of Venice: Antoine borrows money from Shylock to finance Bassanio’s venture to Belmont, Portia’s home; the bond’s forfeiture calls for a pound of Antoine’s flesh; the Panic of 1873 wipes out Antoine's wealth, putting him in default to Shylock. Posner keeps the elopement of Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, with a Christian, Lorenzo, but he drops the contest of three chests for choosing Portia's husband (though she is the object of many courtiers). Posner also maintains the original's tone: disturbing drama interlaced with comedy.
Portia (Maren Bush) doesn’t just don the law clerk’s robes to defend Bassanio’s friend; she has been disguising herself as a man to attend law school, establishing her feminist cred. Nessa (Celeste Jones) is Portia's African-American servant who notes that she has a close, friendly relationship with her employer, but an opaque wall nevertheless divides them. Lancelot (Akeem Davis) is the African-American servant to Shylock who refuses to assist Jessica and Lorenzo in their robbery of and flight from Shylock because he knows it’s safer to be obedient and honest in a white man’s world. Benjamin Bassanio (Seth Rue) knows that to be true, too, but having tasted the social and economic freedom of being white, he sees Portia as his ultimate ticket out of the racism that binds him (and he truly dotes on Portia).
Jessica (Dani Stoller) yearns for the love, appreciation, and adventure Shylock denies her. She's drawn to Lorenzo because he offers all those things, even though she isn’t certain of his motives. Lorenzo (William Vaughan) isn’t certain of his motives, either. A poor white Southerner and con artist, he purposely maneuvers his first meeting with Jessica and never fully leaves off his original intent to run off with her inherited wealth. But he is so completely smitten with her. As in Shakespeare’s play, Lorenzo is something of an enigma in District Merchants; but in the portrayal of him as a true friend to Benjamin and as genuinely infatuated with Shylock's daughter, Posner presents the Jessica-Lorenzo love plot in a way that reflects my own view that Shakespeare uses the couple to rise above the racist and gender fray of the rest of the play. They appreciate and make the most of whatever life they can grab hold of.
As much as the direct-address speeches are meant to bare the characters’ souls for us, we get a clearer view of their minds and motives in their actions—or nonactions. This is especially true in the portrayal of Portia. She clearly pines for Bassanio, but she pauses upon learning he is of mixed race. The concern she vocalizes is cultural, that of her place in society (though she already is disguising herself as a man to attend law school). She also, rightly, doesn’t appreciate Bassanio lying to her by presenting himself as something he’s not. Portia swiftly finances Antoine’s enlargement as a matter of principled justice—yet, she still pauses on the matter of marriage with Bassanio.
In her legal strategy against Shylock, Portia calls on the recently passed 14th Amendment in arguing that Shylock’s bond of flesh constitutes ownership of a human being (a winning argument, if Antoine weren’t so proud of his free black status). Portia also argues for Shylock to show mercy, cribbing Shakespeare's original text: “The quality of mercy is not strain'd; it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. …Therefore, Jew, though justice be thy plea, consider this: that, in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation. We do pray for mercy; and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.”
I’ve always considered this to be one of Shakespeare’s great philosophical speeches. However, this time I couldn’t help feeling that this passage sounds hollow coming from a privileged white woman talking to a Jew in a courtroom full of African-Americans, all of whom have suffered the ill-effects of omnipresent racism. It turns out, thus it seems to Shylock, too: “You don’t lecture me on mercy, you infant,” he roars at Portia. “I have no use for your self-serving mercy.”
Such plot and character developments carry more emotional clout than the overlong and too-many soliloquies. Though effective in getting us inside the characters’ hearts—and the characters getting inside our heads—the play comes to rely on these speeches too much, especially at the end as the action peters out so that every character can get one final say in this group therapy session.
The big emotional and intellectual shock to our moral constitution comes well before this extended denouement. Upon refusing mercy toward Antoine, Boston’s Shylock explains his motivation (as distinguished from any valid reasoning) as a persecuted minority. The courtroom soon encompasses the entire theater, and Boston selects a man in the audience and asks his name. “David,” the man replies (hesitantly). Shylock goes on to demonstrate how a person’s name, through a series of derisive intonations of "David," can be turned into a weapon of hate—just as, over the years, the name of Shylock has become a slur for Jews.
Representing the play’s Reconstruction era, Scenic Designer Tony Cisek’s set comprises columns under construction on a portico of marbled steps: two columns are erect, one is leaning, another lies on the ground, and two (disguising the Folger Theater stage's problematic permanent pair of pillars) are still in their wraps and crates. This visual image represents Washington’s iconic structures: The U.S. Capitol, the White House, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials. After District Merchants’ last speech, with the issues broached in the play remaining unresolved, a glow comes up on the columns before the final black-out.
The quality of mercy is not strained, Portia says; justice shouldn’t be, either.
June 22, 2016