Rasaka Theatre and Vitalist Theatre presents MERCHANT ON VENICE Review – A timely South Asian Shakespearean tragic comedy

Shishir Kurup’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice produced by Rasaka Theatre Company and Vitalist Theatre of Chicago takes us through the current socio-political journey: racism, religious bigotry, misogyny, class and caste stratification, homophobia in the present day South Asian communities of Los Angeles.

Rasaka Theater and Vitalist Theater MERCHANT ON VENICE
Rasaka Theater and Vitalist Theater MERCHANT ON VENICE
Bollywood Romance: Kamal Hans and Suzan Fakhoury PHOTO BY SCOTT DRAY

The Jewish archetype in Shakespeare’s Merchant Of Venice has been traded in for a Muslim businessman “Sharuk” played brilliantly by a Chicago theater veteran Anish Jethmalani. Devender, played by virtuoso Madrid St. Angelo borrows funds from Sharuk to produce a feature line Bollywood film for his friend Jitender, played by Kamal Hans. Inability to pay him back would cost him his “flesh”.

 

One might hope that the theme of this play, the Hindu-Muslim conflict resulting in violence and vengeance through generations wouldn’t be a topic still today, but it is a very common everyday story that we are still talking about.

Rasaka Theatre and Vitalist Theatre MERCHANT ON VENICE

From these reviewers’ perspectives, this production has a mix of strengths and weaknesses. The minimalist set design of brightly colored arches and curtains by Craig Coma allowed spatial time travel within the context of the script and allowed us to focus on the sometimes heady text. An air of surrealism was created by the juxtaposition of Bollywood nuances, cultural intricacies and American pop culture references. Though fun at times, this is confusing and disorienting.

The flip-flopping between Shakespearean English, modern LA language with some Hindi and Gujarati texts thrown in was a verbal minefield. Great comic relief amidst this was provided by Priyank Thakkar’s witty punchlines’ delivery as well as by his physical comedy.

Rasaka Theater and Vitalist Theater MERCHANT ON VENICE
Comedic relief by Priyank Thakkar's witty punchlines’ delivery and physical comedy. PHOTO BY SCOTT DRAY

This 3 hour long play with one intermission could have been a little shorter, just like any other Bollywood movie for these reviewers. It was interrupted by unexpected short dance sequences and songs. Particular was a highly energetic, fun and colorful “Holi” dance sequence choreographed by Alka Nayyar, whose expertise in Bollywood dance and expressions  shined throughout the show.  Kamal Hans’s embodiment of the Bollywood superstar Jitendra seemed flawless.

Rasaka Theater and Vitalist Theater MERCHANT ON VENICE
Highly energetic and fun Bollywood dance sequence PHOTO BY SCOTT DRAY

This play is RECOMMENDED to theater lovers of all walks of life: Shakespeare dorks, anyone interested in South Asian Culture, Bollywood, or socio-political issues. Not recommended for people who are not open to new takes on Shakespeare.

RECOMMENDED

Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.

Editor’s Note and Full Disclosure:  Both of these writers—Kinnari Vora a South Indian dancer and choreographer and musician Bob Garrett have worked with several of the cast members in this production, and note that the South Asian artistic community in Chicago is relatively small.

When

Through April 15th

Where

Greenhouse Theater
2257 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago, IL

Tickets

$25

For further information please visit the Greenhouse Theater’s website or contact the theater box office on 773-404-7336

 

All photos: Scott Dray

Noted Cast

Anish Jethmalani
Madrid St. Angelo
Kamal Hans
Priyank Thakkar
Alka Nayyar
Siddhartha Rajan
Suzan Fakhoury

Production Staff

Playwright: Shishir Kurup

Director: Liz Carlin Metz

 

Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago

Kinnari Vora

Kinnari Vora is a versatile dancer and choreographer in Bharatnatyam (South Indian Classical dance), Indian folk, Kalaripayattu (Indian martial arts) and Indian classical contemporary. She was trained under Guru Sarmishtha Sarkar (India) and was mentored by Guru Pranita Jain (Chicago). She is the co-creator of Ishti (dance collective with Preeti Veerlapati) and is the principal dancer and choreographer for Surabhi Ensemble.  She has performed in India, Italy, Poland, Greece, Israel and the USA. Kinnari also has a practice as a doctor of physical therapy.

Bob Garrett

Bob Garrett has been a professional musician in Chicago for over 20 years. Bob is currently performing in the Broadway in Chicago production of HAMILTON. Other credits include: writing and performing the percussion book for Sting's THE LAST SHIP; performing in the national tour of THE LION KING for 4 years; performing with various dance troupes including The Seldoms, Alvin Ailey, and Randy Duncan,. He is also the co-creator of Posterchild art (multi-disciplined art company, with Nadine Lollino) and co-creator of ESCP (electronic music duo, with Chihsuan Yang). 

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