Brilliantly staged and acted ‘District Merchants’ triumphs at New Jewish Theatre

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
A brilliantly staged and acted “District Merchants” raises timely questions on oppression in a modern reworking of Shakespeare’s 420-year-old “Merchant of Venice.”

Playwright Aaron Posner’s 2016 comedy-drama tweaks the characters, and sets them in the post-Civil War reconstruction era of 1870, in the nation’s burgeoning capital, Washington D.C. Scenes also take place in Belmont, Mass.

It was a time of transition – out of ruins came renewal. But it wasn’t fast or smooth. Posner has us confront the fact that old habits die hard, change isn’t easy, and our tribes continue to define us, so is all the uneasy historical issues and disastrous conflicts really in our past? The clashes could be viewed as somewhat contemporary.

In this New Jewish Theatre production, butting heads are a Jewish immigrant moneylender, Shylock, and black businessman Antoine, shrewdly played by Gary Wayne Barker and J. Samuel Davis respectively, in skillfully calibrated performances.

Antoine has borrowed money from Shylock, but because of a series of events not his doing, must default. Will he be required to hand over a “pound of flesh,” as demanded by the loaner? A trial will ensue, but there will be fireworks in and out of the courtroom regarding power, race, position, family and loyalty.

The incredibly dynamic duo of Barker and Davis, longtime local mainstays, spars so convincingly and with such verve that you hang on to every word and nuance. Their timing is so impeccable that the audience broke into applause after a couple explosive scenes.

Their triumphant pairing is potent – arguably career best — but the supporting characters, involved in several thorny romantic subplots, are exceptional as well.

The noteworthy ensemble has created memorable characters that also mesh as a unit – even with the conflicts. They project a vibrancy, with much thought into their role’s development.

Courtney Bailey Parker and Rae Davis. Photo by Eric Woolsey

Steadfast Courtney Bailey Parker is a strong Portia, who dresses like a man to audit law classes at Harvard and is striving to define her role as a smart woman in 19th century America.

She pairs well with love interest Benjamin, a black man passing for white, and their courtship has a larger context. Rob White is solid as an agent of change.

Standing out is Rae Davis as Portia’s servant Nessa, and she has stood out in two other plays she was in last year (“Cold,” “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot”), her first in regional St. Louis theater. She has a delightful way with dialogue, as does the sublime Karl Hawkins, who is dandy as Shylock’s servant Lancelot.

Karl Hawkins as Lancelot in “District Merchants.” Photo by Eric Woolsey

Hawkins charms in every scene, as does Paul Edwards as Finn, an Irish produce salesman who takes a shine to Shylock’s sheltered daughter Jessica. At first, his brogue was wobbly, but he grew better, and his winning personality was enough to endear.

As delicate Jessica who transforms with determination, Alicen Moser understands the frustration of being a powerful and overprotective father’s only child. When she rebels, she does it in a big way that nearly destroys her father.

The relationships are complicated, but this cast pulsates under Jacqueline Thompson’s perceptive direction.

Thompson has directed this show with such vigor that each character has a distinct understanding of the material, and with her innovative touches, has achieved a masterpiece.

She has astutely woven each character into this tapestry, and moves them around the stage, the striking multi-level set by David Blake, and into the audience with such purpose —  a flow that keeps us riveted.

It does not matter if you have never seen Shakespeare’s most controversial play. “District Merchants” flips it to assure that we see the maligned, marginal groups in a different perspective – people of faith, of color, of origin. We look at mercy in a fresh way.

Posner’s unflinching dialogue about stereotypes is tough stuff, pitting Jews against gentiles, blacks vs. whites, and Irish vs. other ethnic groups.

Billed as an “uneasy comedy,” you wouldn’t ever regard such thought-provoking material that tackles racism, bigotry and xenophobia as a laugh-riot, but there are surprising comic bits that struck a chord with the audience, a spoonful of sugar if you will. After all, Shakespeare did consider “Merchant of Venice” one of his comedies.

But mostly, the humor derives from the spoken thoughts and feelings of the characters, who want basically what everyone wants and how they tell their story. Because of the caliber of this cast, we are quickly drawn into this period, and become emotionally invested as well.

Posner’s work appears to be a winner with New Jewish Theatre. “Life Sucks!,” his comical adaptation of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” was a delightful presentation last spring, and nominated for multiple St. Louis Theatre Circle Awards (coming up March 25).

This must-see production has raised the bar – and will be a measuring stick for this year’s offerings, especially with such a harmonious ensemble.

A work of stunning achievement all the way around – with beautifully accented lighting by Sean Savoie, richly detailed period costumes by Felia Davenport and sound design by Zoe Sullivan.

 “District Merchants” is presented by New Jewish Theatre from Jan. 24 – Feb. 10 on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at the Wool Theatre at the Jewish Community Center, Creve Coeur. For tickets, visit www.newjewishtheatre.org

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