Story: Antoine, a black merchant in Reconstruction-era Washington, DC, wants to help his friend Bassanio marry the smart and beautiful Portia, who lives in Massachusetts. Portia has been disguising herself as a man in order to study at Harvard Law School, where women are forbidden.

Bassanio also holds a secret. Although he’s black, he’s fair-skinned enough to ‘pass’ as a white man and therefore could marry Portia despite being a different race. Portia’s handmaiden Nessa, daughter of a black woman whose freedom was bought by Portia’s father, knows Bassanio’s identity, as well as Portia’s reluctance to get involved with a black man.

To help Bassanio, Antoine borrows money from Jewish businessman Shylock, an immigrant whose family escaped persecution in Ukraine, with the odd, agreed-upon penalty of a “pound of flesh” if Antoine doesn’t make good on the debt. The widowed Shylock is also fiercely protective of his grown daughter Jessica, who enlists the willing aid of Shylock’s servant Lancelot when she conspires to run away with a handsome Irish vegetable seller named Finn.

Enraged by Jessica’s abrupt departure and her theft of his savings in the process, Shylock demands justice when Antoine reveals he cannot pay back the loan on time. Shylock takes Antoine to court, where the latter is defended by a brilliant attorney from Massachusetts: Portia in disguise.

Highlights: New Jewish Theatre’s powerful presentation of this 2016 play smartly combines stellar acting with superior technical work under the expert guidance of director Jacqueline Thompson. Together they showcase Aaron Posner’s ingenious version of Shakespeare’s long controversial play, The Merchant of Venice.

Other Info: Shylock has been a problematic character for four centuries, a case study in anti-Semitism made even more difficult in that The Bard’s work is called a ‘comedy’ primarily because none of its main characters die.

Posner noticed a striking similarity between the Venetian upper class, many of whom owned slaves in the 16th century, and the American South, where Reconstruction was a painful process following the Civil War. Here, both Jewish and African-American characters know too well the injustices they’ve suffered.

Scenic designer David Blake’s set sweeps the audience into the action with a majestic map of the nation’s capital in sepia tones in the background, behind a handsome wooden construction featuring a double-tiered performance area on either side of the stage.

It’s all marvelously illuminated with Sean Savoie’s telling lighting design, while the players cavort around the set in exquisitely designed costumes provided by Felia Davenport, including Antoine’s stylish suit and some long, flowing dresses for the young women. Zoe Sullivan adds an inspired sound and projection design which includes flamenco guitars and orchestral music.

Thompson plays Shylock and Antoine off each other by having them address the audience periodically from opposite sides of the stage. She also shrewdly uses the elaborate set to provide Massachusetts scenes on the top tier to enhance the illusion of distance to the main DC locale.

Antoine proclaims early in the two-act, two-and-a-half-hour presentation that his mother advised him as a child to always “look behind” people, in other words to take the time to understand their backgrounds in order to better explain their behavior. That wisdom underscores the poignancy in Posner’s script, showing not only Shylock’s grief in the present but also his harrowing past to engender some sympathy for his situation.

Thompson coaxes several wonderful performances from her cast, marred only by Rae Davis’ unfortunate penchant for muddling her words, which often caused me to strain to understand what she was saying. This may not have been a problem for others, though, and there’s no doubt Davis’ savvy expressions and fine comic delivery buoyed her performance as Portia’s maiden Nessa.

Gary Wayne Barker’s portrayal of Shylock gets to the heart of the lonely businessman’s torture. When he cries out, “Someone should pay for my pain,” it’s a heart-wrenching, sad plea for humanity. Barker is complemented by J. Samuel Davis’ accomplished characterization of the wealthy merchant Antoine as genial and accommodating but also shrewd and cunning enough to use his guile for personal achievement.

Alicen Moser and Paul Edwards are wonderful as the young lovers Jessica and Finn, the former the loving and dutiful but frustrated daughter of a demanding father and the latter an opportunistic, lower-class Irishman whose thoughts of thievery melt away when he is smitten by Jessica’s charms.

Courtney Bailey Parker pairs well with Rob White as the ambitious Portia and her determined lover Bassanio. Parker gets to the core of Portia, revealing not only her career aspirations in a man’s world but also her own subtle, Northern discrimination against blacks. White captures the spirit of the loyal Bassanio, a true friend to Finn and Antonio as well a man who follows his heart.

Karl Hawkins completes the cast with a delightful rendition of Shylock’s mischievous servant Lancelot, a kindly soul who loves Jessica and chafes under his own short leash held by his difficult employer.

District Merchants succeeds not only in updating The Bard’s troublesome masterpiece but also in wrapping in several new and intricate layers to demonstrate its still relevant message of injustice in a too often cold world.

Play: District Merchants

Company: New Jewish Theatre

Venue: Wool Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive

Dates: January 30, 31, February 2, 3, 7, 8, 9, 10

Tickets: $42-$45; contact 442-3283 or newjewishtheatre.org

Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of Eric Woolsey