Review: “Merchant on Venice” (Rasaka Theatre & Vitalist Theatre)

Anand Bhatt and Madrid St. Angel/Photo: Scott Dray.

You there. Yes, you, the would-be Shakespeare adapter just itching to set a centuries-old work or two in outer space, the post-apocalyptic future, or present day, if the budget’s tight. I know you’re out there, I can see at least four different Shakespeare adaptations currently running in Chicago — including two Twelfth Nights. Put down your neck ruffs, stop everything, and see Rasaka Theatre & Vitalist Theatre’s “Merchant on Venice” immediately. This adaptation from playwright Shishir Kurup and director Liz Carlin Metz centers on a cultural and religious animosity just as old and contentious today as the original’s depiction of indignities and abuses administered by Christians upon Jews. Instead, we explore the massive rift between Muslims and Hindus, and the bitter tensions that blind each to the humanity of the other.

This take on “Venice” has something to teach us about fear, violence and stereotyping, it has something to teach us about politics, sex and prevalent hate in our 2018 American lexicon, and while it harkens back to Shakespeare, it has something to teach us about the Bard’s limitations and the pedestal we reserve for them. Author Shishir Kurup abandons the original text for his own verse, which bursts at the seams with metaphors for these characters’ cultural and sexual frustrations, citing modern tech, pharmaceuticals, and even some Queen lyrics. It’s hilarious, inviting, tense and understandably angry.

One thing that “Merchant on Venice” has that the original text (and theatre at large for hundreds of years) could never hope for, is the viewpoint of its under-represented creative team and cast. Part of what makes this production so poignant is knowledge of the hurdles this South Asian-focused theater company faced just to get it to the stage, versus how effortless and winning it feels.

Luisa Blanco and Anish Jethmalani/Photo: Scott Dray.

In “Merchant on Venice” aging Bollywood star Jitender (Kamal Hans) descends on lifelong friend and struggling Culver City pharmaceutical mogul Devender (Madrid St.Angelo), looking for a favor. He needs cash to vie for the hand of Pushpa (Suzan Fakhoury), whose deceased Bollywood producer father insisted on having any suitor for her love select the correct treasur–I mean, symbolic DVD of a film he’s produced. The cost to try your hand is too great, even for Devender, so he turns to his enemy, Sharuk (Anish Jethmalani), a wealthy Muslim, for a loan. Sharouk is so incensed by them and the disrespect he’s been shown by members of Devender’s Hindu circle that he adds a special caveat to his loan; it can only be repaid with Devender’s manhood, sliced off to feed his dogs.

Meanwhile, Sharuk’s daughter, sixteen year-old Noorani (Luisa Blanco) has been exchanging flirty texts with Armando (Dennis Garcia), a Latino musician who runs in Devender’s circle, and wants to start a band and get married, all against her strict father’s wishes. Everyone converges on the Holi festival; Noorani makes her escape, Jitender vies against other suitors for Pushpa’s hand, and after explosions destroy Devender’s big pharma investments, the terms of his agreement with Sharuk become all too real and binding. These men and women are all faced with the roles they’ve assumed in their annex of the world, and decide just how strictly they will adhere to them. How does the conversation change when all the facets of the person you’ve written off reveal themselves, and they are no longer simply your enemy?

“Merchant on Venice” tackles many ‘hinted at’ elements of the play that inspired it, head on: queerness, the harm that toxic masculinity can do in religion and relationships, and the ignorance of struggling underclasses that have made prosperity possible. When Devender hands a veritable fortune over to his old friend Jitender for marriage, and we see how bittersweet the exchange makes him, it raises questions about their relationship from Pushpa, and their out gay friends Shivananda and Yoganda (Ben Veatch and Anand Bhatt).

Likewise, when Jitender goes headlong into marriage like it will be an easy thing (“I’ll play Weinstein to her Thurman!”), or when Sharuk restricts his daughter to their home, you get a feeling that they have no appreciation of the female perspective. When Pushpa’s cousin Kavita (Alka Nayyar), wants to leave her position of indentured servitude to provide for herself, their relationship has to take on new facets, and grow beyond maintaining the untruths that her family’s wealth had obscured.

Madrid St.Angelo is a sardonic, longing and morose Devender, who is plagued with the sadness of knowing the thing he wants most can never be his. Kamal Hans brings a sweet sliminess to Jitender, naturally ready to schmooze with anyone to win them over. Suzan Fakhoury and Alka Nayyar as Pushpa and Kavita bring wit and carry the beating heart of this production between them, as they volley to be heard in a world that dismisses women and the working poor. Anish Jethmalani lays an embattled heart right on the table as Sharuk, who accepts no pity or solace and gives none either. His wounds have built him an impenetrable armor, and you’ll wait on pins and needles for his take on Shylock’s “If you prick us” diatribe.

Now, between you and me (don’t tell the rest of the cast), I’d like to give a special critic’s choice award to Priyank Thakkar, who plays Tooranpoi, Sharuk’s indolent shopkeep. He appears out of nowhere, puts a pin in the plot, charms open your heart (and sometimes wallet), and rumples everyone as fondly as the tails of his shirt.

If you’re a Shakespeare fan, a proponent of diverse casts and creative teams, and if you think everything is improved with the addition of a Bollywood dance number, get yourself to the Greenhouse Theater Center for this production, as soon as possible.

DICE RATING: d20 — “One of the Best”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A revelatory and relevant take on an ancient cultural rift.

Show: Merchant on Venice

Company: Rasaka Theatre & Vitalist Theatre

Venue:  Greenhouse Theater Center (2257 N Lincoln Ave.)