By Sheri and Josh Flanders
Sheri and Josh are an interracial, married, Chicago-based comedy writing and performing duo and contributors to ChicagolandMusicalTheatre.com. The following conversation was spawned by attending Rasaka Theatre and Vitalist Theatre’s production of “Merchant On Venice.”
Sheri: Sometimes a production speaks to the potential future of theatre. Merchant on Venice, a highly ambitious piece of theatre, offers a window to something new and magical being birthed into the world.
Josh: It’s a retelling of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice set in modern LA through the eyes of the South Asian community. This play has everything: drama, romance, wild action and comedy…
Sheri: …Bollywood dancing, verse and prose, video and vape pens…
Josh: …deep discussions of religion, colorism, class and caste, and corporate financial intrigue…
Sheri: …and the Price is Right “sad trombone” sound effects.
Josh: This might seem like a lot for one play (and it is) although it is nothing if not a fascinating and grand attempt to cohesively hold all these disparate ideas into one piece of art.
Sheri: Much like Shakespeare’s classic play, Merchant on Venice tells the story of a Hindu business man who borrows money from a Muslim vendor alongside the story of a marriage proposal.
Josh: The play was originally produced in 2007 and the current production includes four performers from the original production. The play has recently been updated somewhat and contains both timely references to such infamous figures as Harvey Weinstein, as well as less evergreen ones, such as INXS and O.J. Simpson.
Sheri: Anish Jethmalani is the rock of this play. He plays the “Shylock” character of Sharuk with gravitas and expertly delivers the Elizabethan text with a natural aplomb.
Josh: He could easily fit into a Bollywood version of Deadwood the way he so fluidly combines Shakespearian and modern dialects.
Sheri: I would totally watch that show. Somebody produce that!
Josh: Playwright Shishir Kurup’s decision to filter Shylock’s character, who is traditionally a Jew, through a Muslim character adds a fresh, new perspective to this classic story and provides a way to explore the modern tensions between Hindu and Muslim cultures.
Sheri: Additionally, having a mostly South Asian cast allows the play to address issues of colorism within Brown communities. At its best, it allows for discussions not often explored onstage, such as skin bleaching, but at its worst it does not, unfortunately, fully interrogate the casual racism that also exists within these communities. For example, when a supporting character casually drops the N-word as a slur to denigrate Middle Eastern people (“sand n****r”), without unpacking the weight of the left-field pronouncement, the audience is taken aback.
Josh: There were several such moments where I felt uneasy. The play occasionally portrays some hoary stereotypes of women and gay men without examination. Additionally, there is a depiction of a relationship between an adult male and an underage woman which is clearly called out, but without really recognizing the gravity of this inappropriate relationship. When the play premiered a decade ago, perhaps some of these moments were less problematic, and some even progressive. However, they have not aged well.
Sheri: It is possible that the writer intended some of these things to come off as satire, perhaps because occasionally they successfully spoof some of the broad tropes of Bollywood film. Now I, myself, am not familiar enough with South Asian culture or Bollywood film to be able to make that assessment. There were certainly several jokes that I missed that others enjoyed. But if those particular moments were intended to be satirical, they could stand to be revisited by Director Liz Carlin Metz.
Josh: Priyank Thakkar steals the show as “Tooranpoi” with a monologue so hilarious I wish I was Indian so I could use it at an audition. This is the finest piece of writing in the entire show, and Thakkar is absolutely wonderful in this and one other role in the second half.
Sheri: The second half of the show is absolutely mesmerizing. The writing is at it’s best and we become fully invested in these characters and the drama unfolding in their lives. Very few plays can justify a run time of 2 hours and 45 minutes other than Shakespeare—
Josh: And even sometimes not even Shakespeare—
Sheri: And this would be a much stronger piece if the director were to lose at least 30 minutes from the first half.
Josh: But back to the second half, I was completely engaged with the writing and rhythm, and as often happens in seeing Shakespeare, I needed to warm up to it.
Sheri: Here is where the play delivers on the themes in a most satisfying way. Madrid St. Angelo gives a strong and enjoyable performance as Devender, examining the hilarious and tragic perils of pride and secrecy.
Josh: Though there is a compelling conversation regarding feminism and arranged marriage, overall this is a male-dominated play with waaaay too many dick jokes in my opinion.
Sheri: So many dick jokes. (But one of them was really clever!)
Josh: There were two dance numbers that were welcome breaks from the text-heavy first act.
Sheri: I personally would have enjoyed several more dance numbers. I overheard the women sitting behind us (who had apparently seen the production previously) express a desire for the play to eventually become a South Asian Hamilton, and I for one, I agree with them.
Josh: I also think it would be more impactful if the over-dubbed vocal portions were actually sung live. Luisa Blanco, who is refreshingly bubbly in the role of Noorani, the vendor’s daughter, has a wonderful voice that deserves to be showcased more prominently.
Sheri: Because the play is so male-dominant, it might have benefitted from gender-swapping some of the male roles to female actors. Additionally, Alka Nayyar who plays Kavita, the gracious right-hand-woman to the spoiled Pushpa (Suzan Fakhoury), has the most interesting perspective of all the characters, but unfortunately her very big story is hurriedly glossed over towards the end of the play.
Josh: Kavita deserves a play of her own.
Sheri: And that is the largest takeaway from Merchant on Venice – that this is a grand and sprawling story that could easily be five separate amazing plays. South Asian culture has an endless amount of compelling and complex stories that are screaming to be told, and I for one am excited to see that they are beginning to take shape on the stage.
Rasaka Theatre and Vitalist Theatre present “Merchant on Venice” through April 15 at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Scott Dray.