Play Review: District Merchants

On October 2, Aaron Posner's District Merchants had its opening performance at the South Coast Repertory in Orange County. I was given the opportunity to watch this play for free (shoutout to my theatre director), and it was something I’ve never experienced before.

District Merchants is based off of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, but set in post-Civil War Washington, D.C. The play’s characters struggle with racial and gender oppression, which highly parallel the issues and tragedies our country is dealing with today.

The cast from left to right: Nessa, Lancelot, Jessica, Finn, Shylock, Antoine, Portia, and Benjamin. Photo by South Coast Repertory.

Shylock and Antoine DuPre, leaders of their respective communities, work towards the same goal of establishing themselves in a society that has started the process of reformation. The play shows Shylock and Antoine butting heads at the local market, each insulting each other and judging each other based on their racial stereotypes. But in order to help his adoptive son Benjamin pursue his romantic interest, Antoine waves the white flag and borrows money from Shylock. Antoine fails to pay back the loan, and Shylock goes to court to make him pay. Shylock refuses to show him mercy because he was offended by the way Antoine was prejudiced towards him, thinking that he was just another selfish Jew profiting from sinister deeds.

Photo by South Coast Repertory

Women empowerment didn’t exist back then, so women were still portrayed as the dutiful daughter or the lovely homemaker. Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, lived in a gilded cage her whole life. When she meets Finn, a boy from the market, she uses him as an escape from her father’s oppression. Benjamin’s love interest, Portia, is a wealthy white woman who pretends to be a man in order to attend Harvard Law School. Because women were not yet accepted as equal to men, she struggles with the morality of impersonating a man in order to pursue her dreams as a lawyer.

Photo by South Coast Repertory.

Supporting characters Nessa and Lancelot (paid helpers to Portia and Shylock, respectively) contribute greatly to the dynamic of the play, offering comedy relief and drama when needed. Their background stories offer more than what meets the eye, and their duties to their bosses go beyond the business aspect of their relationship.

Photo by South Coast Repertory.

One of the most interesting things within the play was that every character would have an “aside”. An aside is the part of a character’s lines that only the audience hears. This was a very unique format, one that I’ve never seen performed before. It was strange to see each character break the fourth wall for a really long time, but I appreciated how they voiced their thoughts about their current situations.

The technical aspects of the play were also very impressive. When I walked into the theatre, the set blew me away: stone arches combined with wooden structures support the "reformation" theme of the play. The transitions between scenes were very smooth, and the minimal use of props allowed quicker set changes. The costumes perfectly matched with the era of the play; my personal favorite was the women’s colorful dresses. The projection on the screen behind the actors contributed to the scene changes of the play, contributing to the mood as well.

The actors did an amazing job with their performance, making me laugh and cry and laugh again with their hilarious jokes and their heartfelt tears. The audience interaction within the play made my experience unforgettable, leaving me with a feeling of responsibility to pass along the message to others. I highly recommend seeing this play because it makes a clear statement about society’s problems in a unique way.