DISTRICT MERCHANT – Written by Aaron Posner; Directed by Len Matheo. Produced by Miners Alley Playhouse (1224 Washington, Golden) through June 24. Tickets available at 303-935-3044 or minersalley.com.
My two favorite contemporary playwrights right now are Lauren Gunderson and Aaron Posner. Gunderson’s BOOK OF WILL was the hit of the season a couple of years ago at the Denver Center (after the first week, you couldn’t get a ticket for love nor money) and both BETC and the Catamounts have included one of her scripts in each year’s season for the past few years, including THE TAMING, SILENT SKY, and THE REVOLUTIONISTS. BETC continues by including her MISS BENNET; CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLY in their line up this year. But there are at least fifteen other of her scripts that have not been produced locally yet. Get on it, folks!! Aaron Posner falls into the same category of quick, witty, insightful, thoughtful yet funny theatre. Only four of his eight plays have been produced in Colorado (THE CHOSEN and STUPID F**KING BIRD with MY NAME IS ASHER LEV being done this fall by Cherry Creek Theatre). I had the distinct pleasure of viewing his DISTRICT MERCHANT recently at Miners Alley.
While purported to be a riff on Shakespeare’s MERCHANT OF VENICE, it was reset in Washington, D.C. at the end of the Civil War and was as much about the oppression of newly freed African Americans as it was about the mistreatment of the Jewish. A conversation between Shylock (Chris Kendall), Antoine Dupree, a freed slave (Cris Davenport), and the audience starts the evening. This inclusion of the audience in the explanation creates an immediate community where we are all invested. Shylock and Antoine explain where we are in time and place and explore the dilemmas both face in this new world. As the dialogue progresses, we meet Jessica (Amy Elizabeth Gray), Shylock’s daughter; Portia (Candance Joice), a young woman disguising herself as a man to attend law school; and Nessa (Kristina Fontaine), Portia’s sassy maid/companion. The plot is further complicated by the presence of Finn Randall (Sean Michael Cummings), a young Irish immigrant on the prowl for a rich wife; Benjamin Bassanio (Sinjin Jones), a freed slave passing as white; and his friend, Lancelot (Isaiah Kelley). Jessica sees only the future prescribed for her by tradition of marrying a nice Jewish boy and running a traditional Jewish house. Portia gets caught up in the political turmoil of the time and in her own vision of herself as the protector of Truth, Justice and the American Way. The VENICE connection remains strong as Shylock loans money to Antoine who gives it to Benjamin to woo Portia. When it cannot be paid back, the “pound of flesh” is demanded.
Of all the subplots explored, my favorite was the romance between Portia and Benjamin with Nessa looking on in delight. The script includes a scene in which Portia has to make an important decision. Candance makes this one of the most meaningful scenes of the performance without saying a word, just prowling the stage like a cat as she thinks everything over and comes to a conclusion. The interplay between Candance and Kristina as mistress and maid or as two female friends is delightful. This is Kristina’s debut in Denver theatre and I can’t wait to see what she does next. Her sly glances and barely-under-control humor over the situation is a joy to watch; if she doesn’t get a Henry nomination for best supporting actress out of this, there’s something wrong with the system.
The men were equally supportive of the story. I don’t have to talk about Chris Kendall; you have all come to expect a quiet strength and an honesty in every action from him. He lives up to his own reputation in this one as well. Cris Davenport walks the fine line of mentor for his race and gentle carpetbagger. Sinjin Jones as a somewhat innocent caught between a rock and a hard place also delivers a sweet performance. Sean Michael as the roguish Finn who starts out to seduce and ends up loving is Irish personified.
The most well known speeches from the original Shakespeare are retained – the “If you prick us” speech of Shylock and the “quality of mercy” speech given by Portia in Antoine’s trial. There’s enough Shakespeare to make it feel familiar and enough original to allow for freshness and contemporary language. Len Matheo’s sure-handed direction leads us through a complicated story with ease and humor. As usual, the top notch tech team at Miners also delivers.
May I just say one word more about the work of Bryanna Scott who has served as Stage Manager for Miners Alley for the past eight years, starting while she was still in high school and continuing through her college years at Red Rocks Community College where she has now earned a degree in Theatre Technology. She is the quiet force behind making sure everything is right on stage, that everyone is ready to go at the designated time, and in keeping snafu’s at a minimum. They will miss her when she gets snapped up by some Equity theatre.
A WOW factor of 9.5!!