Aaron Posner’s new play–currently being performed at the Folger Shakespeare Library–takes a central plot element of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, namely the Jewish money lender Shylock’s demand of a pound of flesh as recompense for non-repayment of a loan. Mr. Posner moves the play to post-Civil War Washington, D.C. and offers a different plot. The play deals with anti-semitism and anti-black racism. It is also concerned with the phenomenon of “passing” as one of the characters, light-skinned Benjamin Bassanio (Seth Rue), son of a white slave owner and black woman slave, pretends to be white in order to woo the wealthy white Bostonian Portia (Maren Bush) who herself passes as a man part of the time in order to attend law school.. There are many monologues and director Michael John Garces handles them well, freezing the other characters on stage in place. Mr. Posner’s play has its comic moments and ends with at least two of three couples marrying as in any good Shakespearean comedy. Yet there is is also a heavy handed preachiness that abounds, and this spoiled it for me. That being said, Matthew Boston is notable, giving a credibly intense performance as Shylock.
District Merchants is being performed at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. through July 3, 2016.