By Tom Williams
Playwright Shishir Kurup’s Merchant on Venice has The Bard’s story of Renaissance-era Venice moved to contemporary Venice, California where Hindus and Muslims vent their differences as each struggles to maintain their cultural and religious values in hip-hop, culturally-challenged Southern California. The result is a funny, witty and, at times, moving hybrid of a play. This show is part camp; part Shakespearian, part Bollywood and part American pop with punk influences. Hindus, Muslims and Mexicans people this cross-cultural play told in blank verse (iambic pentameter actually). This cleverly written use of verse adds color, wit and humor as Kurup stays with the poetic form nicely.
I enjoyed this ingenious work despite its length (2 and ½ hours), some spotty Indian accents and the use of contemporary hip-hop pop songs. Merchant on Venice could use a 20 minute trim but the ambitious show delivers enough humor, charm and ethnic centered realism to carry an impact. We see the age old rivalry that split India into two countries as Hindus and Muslims struggle for their cultural and religious beliefs.
Here Devendra, a Hindu, (the charming Karmal Hans) requests a loan from his rival Sharuk, a Muslim (the commanding Anish Jethmalani). The terms of the loan call form Devendra to be castrated if he defaults. Add Pushpa’s (the sensual Pranidhi VarshneyTariq Vasude) dilemma where her rich father has set up three cups for her suitors to choose from in order to marry her. She fears that she’ll end up with a nerd. She desires love.
The play has a quite funny character in Tooranpol, the accountant and Bollywood want-to-be. Tariq Vasudeva, in that role, was a hoot delivering one of the funniest log comic monologues I’ve seen in a while. He steals his scenes with his physical antics and fresh comic delivery. He is a major talent. Merchant on Venice has terrific work from several other players. Vincent P. Mahler, Marvin Eduardo Quihada, Amira Sabbagh, Arvin Jalandoon and Gerardo Cardenas offer fine supporting work.
Merchant on Venice is funny, articulate and poignant as the cross-cultural conflicts are dramatically presented amongst the background of Venice, California’s obsession with pop cultures. This show is energetic, well paced and engaging. Once Kurup makes some cuts, it will become even more pleasing.
Tom99@chicagocritic.com for comments