Review by Joe De Rosa; photos by Scott Dray
What’s in a name?
Just a quick warning. This review might be a bit confounding. The issue rests with adaptations of Shakespeare, in general. At first glance, adapting Shakespeare seems like a formula. It’s just a matter of making smart substitutions. Sub in New York for “fair Verona.” Out go the rival families, in come rival street gangs. Out Romeo and Juliet, in Tony and Maria. Out iambic pentameter, in Sondheim lyrics. Throw in a few interesting takes on colorful supporting characters and some great music and Voila… West Side Story! But, of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Yes, the substitutions can be hip, relevant, and interesting, but the pieces have to fit together without confusing the storyline. The acting and directing has to live up to the legacy. The social commentary has to be clear, but shouldn’t take over the play.
Here’s the rub (sorry)… It’s a mix tape. All of the songs have to work, but they also have to work together. The mix has to be right. Unfortunately, while the individual pieces are there, Merchant On Venice, Shishir Kurup’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, doesn’t get the mix right. To put it another way–and this is the confounding part–Kurup’s faithful adaptation of Shakespeare wrenching treatise on human nature and revenge, laced with creative updates and clever dialogue, in the hands of a talented director and an outstanding ensemble cast… doesn’t work.
Let me be clear. I wanted to like this play. And, to some extent, I did. There are about an hour and forty minutes of great theater in Merchant On Venice. The problem is that the play is two hours and forty-five minutes long. When I read the description of Kurup’s Merchant… “set on Venice Boulevard… a section of the Los Angeles area where hatred and intolerance among Hindus and Muslims has grown to a boiling point. With rock-and-roll and Bollywood-influenced music, blank verse, and present-day pop references — replete with Indian, American, and Latino jargon that reflect the sound of the South Asian Diaspora, as well as the polyglot crackle of Los Angeles…” I thought, well, this might be a little tough to keep up with, considering I have no idea what “the polyglot crackle of Los Angeles” means, but any play that works this hard to make a statement and openly courts comparison to Shakespeare is going to be interesting.
On some level, adaptations of Shakespeare that don’t hide from the fact that they’re adaptations of Shakespeare–and switching of to On doesn’t really count as hiding–either triumph or suffer from the unavoidable comparison to the real thing. No one compares Lion King to Hamlet (google it) because the connection is never really made in the first place, but if you call your play Hamlet, Prince On Denmark instead of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, or you just call it just Hamlet, you have to have a really good… Hamlet. Or, in the case of the Merchant of/On Venice, a super-compelling Shylock.
Everything in the story builds to the moment of the fulfillment of Shylock’s seething anger. His wrath is the price of societal injustice. His quest for vengeance exposes an inescapable flaw in the otherwise heroic. His revenge denied is beauty’s stain revealed. So Shylock has to be really good. Merchant On Venice passes this test. The strength of Kurup’s adaptation hinges on the interplay between Sharuk, a Muslim moneylender grappling with a lifetime of pent-up wrath from religious and cultural discrimination, and Devender, a Hindu business mogol whose close friendships and freewheeling style have borne him a place atop the south-Asian Culver City hierarchy. And this interplay is, far and away, the strength of Merchant On Venice.
Anish Jethmalani’s take on Shylock–now Sharuk–is mesmerizing. His embodiment of vengeful wrath turned rage carries the action and salvages what, at times, is a wandering storyline. Madrid St. Angelo’s, Devender is a steady force throughout the play and utterly believable even when his “pound of flesh” is on the line. Liz Carlin’s deft direction of a large ensemble cast through the twists and turns of Kurup’s Shakespeare meets Bollywood mashup showcases the talent of a 15 person cast without a weak link, while finding the time and space in a 2 hour and 45 minute run time for strong individual performances like those given by Priyank Thakkar’s as Sharuk’s servant.
Still, the elements of Merchant On Venice just don’t mix. While the play is, by no means, poorly written, Kurup’s desire to stick close to Shakespeare’s original layout and the constant decision to add rather than subtract makes the story unwieldy. The Bollywood pieces will seem out of place to anyone but a true fan of the genre, and the pop culture references–and there are many, many pop-culture references–are, at points, clunky. False starts and unneeded interruptions muddy the plot. Soliloquies designed to give cultural insight drag on and distract from the action as characters too often essentially explain that they are giving cultural insight.
Though Kurup is a gifted writer with a great idea–and he should be commended for taking a play that is often considered anti-semitic and adapting away what may have been view as any hint of Islamophobia–his play is, in many ways, doomed from its inception. There are just too many ingredients in the pot. The wonderful moments when the tension rises and Sharuk’s conflict with Devender boils over are too few and far between to save the play, as they take a back seat to a desire for relevance and clever cultural connections diffuse the potential for real connection.
The bottom line? Inside of Merchant On Venice, you’ll find noteworthy performances, genuine insight, and fine direction. It just doesn’t add up.
Merchant On Venice is a Rasaka Theatre production now playing at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. until April 15. Performance times vary; check the website . Tickets are available from Rasaka Theatre. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.