Merchant on Venice
/ by R. Sheth

October 11, 2007
By Kris Vire

Playwright Shishir Kurup’s bracing, ingenious pop-cult revamp of Shakespeare’s Merchant proves that the Bard’s themes and style still resonate. Kurup’s brand-new but faithful script moves the action to present-day Southern California and smartly updates the characters to modern-day equivalents: Idle pretty-boy Bassanio becomes Bollywood star Jitendra, for instance, while the dandy Gratiano is recast as Rat Pack–worshipping playboy Amithaba. The playwright deftly maintains the mostly verse structure with a wink; the prose-speaking Tooranpoi (formidable clown Tariq Vasudeva as the Launcelot analogue) tells Jitendra, “It must be nice to speak in verse; I did not understand a word, but it sounded good.”

Kurup smoothes out some of his source material’s kinks and sometimes makes explicit that which is arguable in the original. Where some have suggested a homosexual relationship between Antonio the merchant and his young friend Bassanio, for example, Devendra the merchant is unabashedly gay and in unrequited love with Jitendra. More important is Kurup’s thematic shift: Shakespeare’s Christians become Hindus, and the Jewish money-lender Shylock becomes the Muslim Sharuk (played by Anish Jethmalani as equal parts fire and ice). Sharuk, however, is neither caricatured villain nor martyred victim. The playwright equalizes the blame for the conflict in the trial scene, highlighting the two sides’ efforts to demonize one another rather than focus on what they share (made more compelling here, where both factions are minorities in the so-called great melting pot). Carden’s playful production matches Kurup’s SoCal script: a refreshing breath of smoggy air.