Bold Merchant melds Bard, Bollywood / by R. Sheth

October 8, 2007
By Chris Jones
Tribune Theater Critic

Shylock becomes an alienated Muslim trapped in a Southern Californian world of immigrant, movie-loving Hindus. Jessica runs away to Hollywood. To snag Portia's hand in marriage, suitors have to pick the right DVD. And that famous pound of flesh? In Shishir Kurup's remarkable polycultural deconstruction of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, the owner of the Money Store wants to make his extraction from a most delicate part of the male anatomy.

This hip-hop influenced script somehow fuses references to Jim Morrison, Helen of Troy, Vladimir Nabokov, Leif Garrett (!) and Freddie Mercury, even as it translates events in the troubled original with astonishing precision. And everyone still speaks in blank verse.

I've no idea why Merchant on Venice, which apparently was workshopped and chatted about extensively at big theaters on both coasts, landed for a world premiere at the still-emerging Silk Road Theatre Company, which operates in a 100-seat theater in Chicago's Loop. Actually, I do have some idea. It's a big, new, risky, rambunctious show set in the U.S. South Asian community and thus out of the classical mainstream.

Silk Road has been promising us new work of international repute. In this case, they have most assuredly delivered. This is a show that will have an extensive international life. If Kurup could somehow get his script, say, in the hands of the right person at the Royal Shakespeare Company, this play might actually help that company better reflect the world in which they (and Shakespeare) now operate.

I found this Merchant 10 times as funny, smart and intellectually stimulating as The Bomb-itty of Errors, which it slightly resembles. And that has been a hit across the country. For sure, this piece is a must-see for anyone who follows progressive approaches to Shakespeare. And if you have a teenager studying this difficult play, a trip to see Kurup's eye-popping version will have their eyes bulging out of their sockets.

But their heads will still be in the original Shakespearean themes — racial tolerance, personal bitterness, the way brutality begets brutality. That's why this piece is so good. It's a funny, lively show written with sharp satirical wit. It even contains a huge musical parody of the Bollywood gestalt. But it's no mere spoof.

Kurup's adaptation — appropriation is a better word — of Shakespeare's most troubling story is both uncannily accurate and transformative.

Stuart Carden's very lively production is a new high for Silk Road. Anchored by the complex Anish Jethmalani as Sharuk, the piece also features a very funny performance from Tariq Vasudeva and rich, punky work from the youthful likes of Sadieh Rifai, Amira Sabbagh and, especially, Pranidhi Varshney as Portia, er, Pushpa.

I'd argue the piece could lose 10 minutes from its second act. And you have to be willing to watch many competing aesthetic styles all at once. But given the free-wheeling style, that's not overly bothersome. This is a superb piece of passionate, irreverent, insightful writing.

"He hates me for what I am," says this Sharuk, raging within, "a rival businessman not of his faith." On such turns a wider world than Shakespeare did imagine.