October 1, 2007
By Hedy Weiss
Note to New York's Public Theater, producer of Shakespeare in Central Park: Send a scout to see the Silk Road Theatre Project's hip, funny, ingeniously reconfigured world premiere of Merchant on Venice, Shishir Kurup's reinvention of Shakespeare's most controversial play. Stage this production at the outdoor Delacorte Theater and you can bet half the Indian immigrant population of Queens will be lined up for seats, with the Muslims of Brooklyn right behind them.
And you thought this was a story of Renaissance-era Venice , where rich Christian businessmen crassly used, abused and finally destroyed the Jew who lived among them. Think again. Kurup (born in India, raised in Kenya, a longtime transplant to the United States), has a Salman Rushdie-like fluency in cross-cultural, pop-cultural hijinks and a flair for highly ornamented, wildly comical linguistic flights. And in updating his Merchant to contemporary Venice, Calif. -- where wealthy, worldly Hindus face off against a prosperous, ultra-conservative Muslim -- he has heightened the controversy for our times and conjured a feast of behavioral and musical correspondences that do Shakespeare proud.
Director Stuart Carden's exceptionally buoyant, Bollywood-infused production -- with an ethnic cast that clearly thrives on this material -- is ambitious and delicious on many levels.
The merchant here is Devendra (Kamal Hans), an Indian import-export mogul. Short of cash when it is needed by Jitendra (Andy Nagraj), the down-on-his-luck Bollywood actor he secretly loves -- and who is pursuing the spoiled L.A. princess, Pushpa (a glittering Pranidhi Varshney) -- he makes a deal with Sharuk (the superb Anish Jethmalani), the local Muslim he abhors. With comic genius from Tariq Vasudeva as a mama's boy striver, and inspired work by Amira Sabbagh, Marvin Quihada, Madrid St. Angelo, Vincent P. Mahler, Gerardo Cardenas and Sadieh Rifai, the energy and emotional intensity never flag.