Regional Reviews: St. Louis
It's "present" in the psychological sense, with highly authentic actors going right up into the house seats to talk to us every fifteen or twenty minutes, under the direction of Jacqueline Thompson. And the whole story takes on a beautifully American tone, reset in Washington D.C. around 1873, on David Blake's set, when blacks and whites were still finding their direction after the Civil War. Bassanio is the penniless young man, wonderfully played by Rob White, in love with would-be lady lawyer Portia (sleek and intellectual Courtney Bailey Parker). And J. Samuel Davis is Antoine (Antonio, in the 1596-ish original), a speculator and friend to Bassanio. In the original play, Antonio retreats quickly into the background. But, in this version, opposing the great Shakespearean villain Shylock, he uplifts the play entirely, leading the way out of prejudice and vengeance. In that sense, it becomes a battle for the soul of America, both then and now.
Shylock is an even more frightening figure than usual, thanks to actor Gary Wayne Barker. Recounting a torrent of anti-Jewish slurs, he walls himself off from a world that seems to hate him. At first he seems small and unimportant in his resentment. But by the time all of his work is done, Mr. Barker has used the Posner script to construct a monumental trap of the self, in what becomes the lowest form of freedom. Like his black counterpart Antoine (Mr. Davis), this Shylock challenges the audience directly (sometimes very directly). And where Antoine is ready to move on to a brighter future, this American moneylender is still burning with rage over his own tale of anti-Semitism, reinforced by the collective experience of his forefathers. In that sense, District Merchants is a lesson for every minority, over the use of identity as a matter of hope or anguish. We are steadily drawn into all of that by two stage wizards, Mr. Davis and Mr. Barker, as they mount up on platforms like opposing preachers, or into the audience like relentless law professors. It's thrilling, as they raise their banners.
Meanwhile, three romantic young men are forced by their girlfriends into searching, rational discussions of their love, and futures, and deepest motives. This structure, too, builds and builds. And when the most towering of those romantic relationships suddenly collapses before our eyes, it's all we can do not to shout out our urgent advice to the guy being dumped. For good or ill, in District Merchants the way to a man's (or woman's) heart is through their ears.
Portia, of course, dons men's clothing to defend Antoine against Shylock in court, over a bad debt. In that role, Ms. Parker seems like a beautiful river of pure thought. And countering her intellectual energy is Rae Davis, who outshines everyone else on stage as Portia's hilarious servant Nessa. Her unlikely match is the Puck-like Karl Hawkins, playing Shylock's delightfully chatty servant. Their last scene together goes on and on, as we try to imagine the two getting hitched. But they overcome all doubts, and get the biggest applause when their match is finally made.
Each character enjoys the full play of logic and adaptability (which explains why the show runs about three hours and ten minutes), and this allows for a third powerful love story. Alicen Moser uses her skills as a comical ingénue as Shylock's daughter Jessica, refusing to inherit a legacy of hate; and Paul Edwards skates surprisingly between charm and contemptibility as her Irish love interest.
Critics used to get hung-up over whether The Merchant of Venice was a tragedy or a comedyit ends with marriages, and that's one definition of comedy. But in the 19th century, the actor-managers would travel the land, and cast themselves as Shylock. Then they'd cut-off the comical marriage scene, so they could have a highly dramatic courtroom fight, in the antique style of acting, as the climax of the play. But nowadays, The Merchant of Venice begins to look more like Shakespeare's premonition of the "coming of age" story, where a band of young people "slay a dragon," and immediately claim adulthood as their prize. District Merchants is all these things, too, but with perhaps an added sense of American hopefulness, glowing quietly in the background.
District Merchants, through February 10, 2019, at the The New Jewish Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive (just west of Lindbergh at Scheutz Rd.), St. Louis MO. For more information, visit jccstl.com/arts-ideas/new-jewish-theatre/.
The Players (in speaking order):
* Member, Actors' Equity Association