reviews – Merchant On Venice

I’m really proud of this show. I designed the set and the projections on this our latest Silk Road Theatre Project: Shishir Kurup’s Merchant On Venice. The “On” is not a typo, this is a modern adaptation set on West LA’s Venice Blvd with Hindus and Muslims rather than Christian’s and Jews, its a perfect Silk Road show. Reviews have been phenomenal as you can see below. It runs through November 4th, don’t miss it.

Bold ‘Merchant’ melds Bard, Bollywood
By Chris Jones

Tribune theater critic

October 8, 2007

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.

“The Merchant on Venice”
Where: Silk Road Theatre Project, 77 W. Washington St.

When: Through Nov. 4

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Tickets: $28-33 at 888-745-5849

Worldly Hindus take on a strict Muslim
THEATER REVIEW | Take another look at the Bard’s ‘Merchant’
October 1, 2007

BY HEDY WEISS Theater Critic

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.


Chicago Reader
MERCHANT ON VENICE Shishir Kurup doesn’t merely update the Elizabethan vernacular (he keeps the iambs) in his bold, smart, sardonic reinvention of one of Shakespeare’s most troubling plays. He also skillfully weaves in post-9/11 paranoia about “the other” as well as the prejudices of competing immigrant groups on LA’s Venice Boulevard. Here Sharuk/Shylock (a stunning Anish Jethmalani) is a Muslim mercilessly derided by Hindu Devendra/Antonio and his friends. This minority-on-minority conflict creates layers of cultural dissonance both intriguing (Sharuk’s daughter runs off to be a punk singer) and disturbing (Pushpa/Portia sneeringly dismisses a marriage proposal from a darker-skinned fellow Indian). Stuart Carden’s spirited world-premiere staging for Silk Road Theatre Project highlights equally the script’s sinister undertones and its giddy polyglot mix of traditional and pop-culture references. –

Kerry Reid

From Barbara Vitello @ Daily Herald

” A sparkling production directed by Stuart Carden”

“It’s Kavita (Jessica) who finally stops the madness with an eloquent plea for tolerance and forgiveness that recognizes Hindu complicity in perpetuating prejudice and hatred (something Shakespeare’s Christians never admit). It’s in that speech – a quiet but powerful reminder that we can preserve our humanity if we wish to – that Kurup solves Shakespeare’s problem.”
“This show delights……Bravo.”