From left, Dani Stoller, Seth Rue, Akeem Davis, Celeste Jones and William Vaughan in “District Merchants” at Folger Theatre. (Teresa Wood)
Theater critic

As efforts go in making Shakespeare’s thornier plays more digestible, its concerns more relevant to contemporary playgoers, you’d be hard pressed to find a more admirably intelligent reworking of “The Merchant of Venice” than playwright Aaron Posner’s “District Merchants,” now having its world premiere at Folger Theatre.

Known for his imaginative riffing on Shakespeare and wholesale renovation of Chekhov (in such widely produced plays as “Stupid F---ing Bird”), Posner here performs some of the most radical dramatic surgery he’s ever attempted: His Shylock (Matthew Boston) is no longer a Venetian moneylender of the 1500s; he’s a Jewish immigrant loanmaker in the Washington, D.C., of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.

And the hard-pressed merchant-client from whom he ultimately demands his repayment as a pound of flesh is not, as in the original, a borrower from the entrenched city elite. He is, rather, a black businessman (Craig Wallace) who bears his own sense of historical grievance. In their heated clash, Posner invokes a complex social dynamic of a sort Shakespeare could never have envisioned — that of the alternately symbiotic and tense relationship of American blacks and Jews, and their separate, powerful claims to the story of oppression.

“District Merchants” manages to be a lucid and even at times agreeably lighthearted introduction to a Shakespearean comedy that has been attacked over the years for its strong whiff of anti-Semitic caricature. Though Shakespeare bestows upon Shylock an unforgettable plea for compassion (“Hath not a Jew eyes?”), “The Merchant of Venice” remains disturbingly fixated on a Jewish stereotype — that of a Jew obsessed with money — a weapon that has been brandished in the ensuing tragedies of Jewish history to scapegoat an entire people.

Posner’s mostly colloquial adaptation, directed with verve by Michael John Garcés, does not sidestep this central aspect of the play. But he has muted significantly the humiliation of Shylock in the climactic courtroom scene, during which the disguised Portia (Maren Bush) uses nuances of the law to derail Shylock’s apparent intention to satisfy the terms of his lethal contract with Wallace’s Antoine (Antonio in the original). The playwright also happens to offer Shylock a more emphatic opportunity than did Shakespeare to explain himself: Near the end of the production, a regally agitated Boston picks out a member of the audience — on the evening I attended, that was yours truly — on whom to heap verbal abuse. The tirade culminates in Shylock spitting as he says the audience member’s name. Just so he is certain you know what his life has been like.

Matthew Boston, left, is Shylock and Craig Wallace is his adversary Antoine in Aaron Posner’s “District Merchants.” (Teresa Wood)

The play in Posner’s reimagining becomes less about the quality of mercy, though, than about how flexible a supposedly egalitarian society can be to the varied tribes struggling to be full partners in it. So Antoine’s friend Bassanio (here called Benjamin Bassanio and played by Seth Rue) is a mixed-race suitor to wealthy Portia, and who, fearing her uneasy feelings about blacks, poses as a white man. The charade turns slightly on its head another facet of the original, in which Portia’s wooers are subjected to a riddle to win her highly desirable hand.

The dramatist’s intent is achieved here for an intensifying of the modern ethical stakes — it’s an excellent version for school groups — and for broadening the comedy, too. The romance of overprotective Shylock’s refined daughter, Jessica (Dani Stoller), and charming bumpkin Lorenzo (William Vaughan) becomes a full-fledged comic elopement in “District Merchants,” and the servants now called Lancelot and Nessa, portrayed with a satisfying exuberance by Akeem Davis and Celeste Jones, provide an aptly amusing counterpoint to the boiling antipathy of Shylock and Antoine.

It’s Washington as the capital of a changed, wounded nation that Garcés and set designer Tony Cisek conjure; the towering classic columns on the Folger stage that are hoisted into place signal both ruin and renewal. The setting betokens the monumental standoff expertly executed by Boston and Wallace, who stand as twin pillars of this transitional American age. The combustible flirtations of Vaughan and Stoller, meanwhile, tend to upstage the more sedate pairing of Bush’s Portia and Rue’s Bassanio, though the performances are altogether polished. And Christylez Bacon’s music and Meghan Raham’s costumes offer warm and vivid embroidery.

It speaks well of Folger that it can empower a playwright to posit skillfully a new context and even devise new language for a piece of Elizabethan drama with which some audiences otherwise might decline to engage. “District Merchants,” in fact, does not merely speak to Shakespeare. There’s a conversation for this production to have with another just-opened play in town, Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s “An Octoroon,” that also reworks an old play’s antique ethnic perspective. Both evenings present opportunities to reflect on how the act of revision itself rises to the level of art.

District Merchants, adapted by Aaron Posner from “The Merchant of Venice.” Directed by Michael John Garcés. Music, Christylez Bacon; set, Tony Cisek; costumes, Meghan Raham; lighting, Geoff Korf; sound, James Bigbee Garver; dramaturgy, Michele Osherow. About 2½ hours. Tickets: $35-$75. Through July 3 at Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE. Call 202-544-7077 or visit folger.edu/theatre.

Shylock goes to Washington in ‘District Merchants’ at Folger