Phillip Lewis is a freelancing director and playwright native to Chicago. He has worked with companies such as Silent Theatre Company, Pegasus Players, Oracle Theater, and Prop Thtr along with a number of Deaf theater companies. He primarily focuses on the aesthetics of storytelling involving the representation of intersectionality and accessibility for all. He hopes to soon be a part-time American Sign Language Interpreter and a full-time impactful director.
Pictured: Luisa Blanco and Anish Jethmalani. Photo by Scott Dray.
By Phillip Lewis
One benefit of the Shakespearean revisionist niche is the ability to adapt the Bard’s work to comment sociopolitically on current events. The challenge, however, is to accomplish the task without diverting so far from the source material that it’s unrecognizable — which seems to be the case with Rasaka and Vitalist’s revisit of the classic THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, entitled here MERCHANT ON VENICE.
The steepest challenge the show faces is the overwhelming context in which it is placed. The play begins in a sea of unknowns. Though not much else gives hint to it, the conflicts amongst the Hindu and Muslim characters are shared within the same community in a region of Los Angeles called Culver City. From there, the play takes a modern look at verse as it intertwines with black and brown immigrated American cultural references of the present.
Thus begins a number of extraneous puzzle pieces to the plot’s bigger picture that never really connect. The pop references gratuitously squeezed between grim drama leave you feeling as if you are experiencing Shakespeare in the form of a Seinfeld-style situational comedy. This is hugely problematic when references like Johnny Cochran are juxtaposed alongside Tinder dating and female castration. Often you are left wondering what really matters to the characters and why.
Eventually, when the story finds its focus and momentum, it drives a sense of power and severity that begins to connect some of the greater pieces. Particularly, there is hardly a moment where Anish Jethmalani’s Sharuk, adapted from Shakespeare’s Shylock, is on stage without the focus and control of the stakes. Jethmalani’s command and desperation have a trance-like effect that come from a place of pride, vulnerability and unwavering disparity. This, matched with Madrid St. Angelo’s affectionate and intricately flawed Devender, and heaping splashes of perfected comedic timing by Priyank Thakkar and Anand Bhatt in supporting ensemble roles, provides a sharp aim at the story’s true girth and potential.
Without those players on stage, there are many moments when the audience is left behind from the rapid and inconsistent pacing and weight. The build-up to the first act’s climax feels unearned and out of place. The connection to the binding text feels weak and dishonest to the subject matter at hand.
MERCHANT ON VENICE has lofty ambitions, attempting to discuss highly controversial topics within a 3-hour arena. However, the quick comedic jabs and the bombardment of underdeveloped plots make the poignancy of intersectional community seem like a lackadaisical common occurrence. True, the source material is a dark comedy by nature, but the weight of the modern era has broken the back of this adaptation as a whole.
The production’s goals seem quite clear, but, there’s still quite a bit of sculpting needed.
MERCHANT ON VENICE runs through April 15th.