Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A modern twist on Shakespeare’s “Merchant” presents a new set of religious tensions

by Catey Sullivan

Amid his extraordinary outpouring of dramas, tragedies and comedies, Shakespeare penned only one openly, inarguably gay love story. It’s in “The Merchant of Venice”: Antonio loves Bassanio, as obviously and as passionately as Romeo loved Juliet. But although the text leaves no room for doubt, it’s a love story that—at least in every last one of the dozen or so productions of “Merchant” we’ve seen—is invariably (mis)interpreted and presented as deep friendship. Until now.

With “Merchant on Venice,” playwright Shishir Kurup unleashes a Bollywood-infused variation on Shakespeare’s troubling drama. And amid this cinematic kaleidoscope spangled with unexpected humor and fizzified with pop-culture references, we get the anguished, unrequited love story that is usually, unforgivably CUT HERE FOR MORE presented as platonic.

Directed by Stuart Carden for the Silk Road Theatre Project, “Merchant on Venice” retains the dark currents of the original while deliriously colliding headlong into the Indian equivalent of a Busby Berkeley spectacular. Playing up the sorrow-drenched subplot of unrequited love between the Hindu businessman Devendra and his soon-to-be-engaged (to a woman) best friend Jitendra isn’t the only departure Kurup takes from the original in this genre-bending mix of glittering saris, shocking social study and gleeful romance.

Kurup moves the story from 13th century Venice, Italy, to 21st century Venice, Calif., throws in a layer of punk rock, and transforms the dialogue into an urgently accessible barrage of poetry that’s rooted in rhythm rather than rhyme. Yet there’s reverence in here for the Bard, even as he’s revamped. The essential plot remains simple and brutal: Sharuk is a devout Muslim businessman trying to live in peace among a majority population of Hindus who openly deride him as the scum of the earth. The Hindu Devendra, eyes rolling at the ridiculousness of the deal, borrows a tidy sum from Sharuk, agreeing to become a eunuch if he can’t repay the loan.

It’s that bit of usury (the Jewish merchant Shylock demands a pound of flesh in the original) that contributes to the oft-heard cry that “Merchant” is hatefully anti-Semitic. And to be sure, predatory lenders are generally evil creatures who send the desperate into financial death spirals with gleaming, seductive and false promises of painless bailouts. But in the final act of Shakespeare’s “Merchant,” it isn’t the money-lending Merchant who comes off badly. It’s the Christians who reveal themselves to be ruthless, sadistic bigots utterly unfamiliar with the concepts of forgiveness and mercy. As for the Merchant’s barbaric repayment plan, he’s learned barbarism at the feet of the masters—the genuflecting, devout souls who have taunted, ridiculed, shunned and spat on him his entire life.

Kurup knows his source material well. It’s risky business, tinkering with Shakespeare, especially in familiar passages such as the third act showstopper that belongs to the Merchant. You know this passage, or at least parts of it (“If you prick us, do we not bleed?”). It’s a heart-rending monologue that begins as The Merchant, confronted yet again with someone who treats him like a rabid dog, unleashes an agonized series of rhetorical questions in a searing plea for the basic recognition of his humanity. When that recognition doesn’t come, the Merchant’s words turn bitter—the poisonous, vengeful harvest of soul-warping hatred, meticulously sown by a lifetime of oppression. Reformed in a modern vernacular, the speech reverberates with the force of a roaring, ill-favored wind.

Shakespeare’s play ends somewhere in the disquieting limbo between tragedy and comedy; Kurup changes course, giving his “Merchant” a tickling twist in the final scene that ensures the thing lands sunny-side up. Even so, “Merchant on Venice” does not exist squarely in happyland: Hope is tempered with harsh reality. Tellingly, Kurup has Devendra lose his fortune after a series of factory explosions in Bhopal, a plot point that immediately calls to mind the carnage that came in 1984 when several Union Carbide factories blew up in that same city. (More than 22,000 Indians died after Union Carbide sent 40 tons of lethal gasses into the air.) There’s no balm that can erase such horrors, just as there’s no easy remedy to the inherent violence borne of millennia of prejudice. Unease lurks ever so subtlety in the final scene of “Merchant,” a shadow stretched underneath a patina of shiny joy. As the straight couple basks in the glow of happily-ever-after, the bridegroom’s best friend, longing to be more, smiles through the anguish of the unrequited. The implication is clear: Globally, there just may come a day when religion is powered as much by goodness as it is by hatred. Individually, hearts will be breaking until the end of days.

“Merchant on Venice” closes Nov. 4 at the Silk Road Theatre Project in the Chicago Temple Building (77 W. Washington, 888/745-5849);