October 25, 2007
By Venus Zarris
Silk Road Theatre Project delivers an outstanding world premiere of playwright Shishir Kurup's Merchant on Venice. In this remarkable adaptation of Shakespeare's classic, Hindu-Muslim tensions play out on the contemporary American landscape of L.A.'s Venice Boulevard. This play proves the timeless, transcending qualities of Shakespeare's stories when approached by a truly exceptional writer. Kurup fuses Indian, American and Latino pop references in the literary framework of iambic pentameter and sprinkles in a few Bollywood musical numbers.
But as much an amusing spectacle of cultural intersections, it is a polemic on theological and ethnic collisions. Merchant on Venice proves to be a delightfully enticing crash course on the Hindu-Muslim communities in modern-day America, two misunderstood, oversimplified and grossly underrepresented groups. On the surface of the American outlook, Muslim means terrorist and Hindu means convenient store. Diving beneath the surface Hindu means Bollywood films and Muslim still means terrorist or at best suspicious.
Director Stuart Carden takes this deceptively profound script and delivers it with a diverse and engaging ensemble that tackles the complexities of the material with impressive skill and contagious enthusiasm. The send-ups of Bollywood song and dance numbers highlight the production's unique playfulness and infuse the show with rapturous delight. My one request would be for more of these irreverently explosive musical interludes.
There are outstanding performances delivered by many, including the wonderful multicharacter agility of Madrid St. Angelo. Tariq Vasudeva accomplishes a show-stopping performance as the idiosyncratically hysterical Tooranpoi. His comic ability is as versatile as it is insanely hilarious. Anish Jethmalani, as Sharuk, the script's Muslim equivalent to Shakespeare's Shylock, adds an intensity of character that takes the production to extraordinary depth. Even in the midst of his unrelenting desire for vengeance, he possesses an eloquence that articulates the Muslim experience of being the recipients of bigoted intolerance as much as they are the perceived perpetrators of said transgression. Jethmalani delivers one of the most subtly staggering and persuasively enlightening performances seen this year.
Playwright Kurup takes creative chance after chance, most of which succeed brilliantly. Once again, Silk Road fearlessly tackles misconceptions and misrepresentations as only the arts can. Merchant on Venice is not only exceptionally ingenious in its reinterpretation of this classic tale of brutal bigotry and revenge but serves the purpose of illuminating the overlooked and thereby emancipating the general perceptions of our all too homogenized body-politic. Those are some lofty accomplishments in and of themselves, but add to that a theatrical experience that is blissfully entertaining, and you have a unique marvel not to be missed. (****)