EnActe Arts is as bold in its offerings as it is lofty in its vision of producing South Asian themed theatre, for universal audiences. The company provides a platform for writers and playwrights from across the globe, and creates a forum for crucial South Asian themed stories to be heard, in the US.
Its current production, playwright Shishir Kurup’s “Merchant On Venice”, brings merchants of Hindu-Muslim diaspora, residing on LA’s Venice Boulevard, on stage, in an adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic. A Hindu merchant named Devendra (Amasalan Doraisingam), requests the help of Muslim moneylender, Sharuk (Vijay Rajvaidya), to fund his friend Jitendra (Sonu Bains) in his matrimonial suit to Pushpa (Angelica Shah), a wealthy heiress of her late father’s fortune. Underpinning their agreement, Sharuk and Devendra have a history of deep mutual distrust and dislike. Sharuk insists that if Devendra fails to fulfill his contract and pay him back on time, then it would incur a severe penalty. The penalty would be for Devendra to lose his manhood and for Sharuk to cut off his testicles.
I found the second half of the play more engaging, than the first half. The first half of the play, seeks to depict with humor and ironic wit, exaggerated cultural stereotypes of racism and bigotry, and the history of racial intolerance among the communities. Despite well intentioned effort, most of the humor did not seem hilariously funny, and at times, it seemed too simplistic, annoying, and simply perpetuating the entrenched stereotypes. The play seeks to adapt Shakespeare’s classic, with a complex plethora of characters, and in the process, also becomes confusing at times. Indeed, Shishir Kurup seems to be a talented playwright, and at times the beauty of the dialogs comes through. However, in the absence of the microphones and as plenty of new characters are introduced, and as some of their voices become softer and with missing dialogs, I found my interest diminishing, and my mind wandering. Perhaps more experienced actors may be able to deliver with greater punch and emphasis, and change this perception. Ranjita Chakrabarti as Tooranpoi, Sharuk’s disengaged employee, was hilarious and generated some good laughs and Angelica Shah’s and Vijay Rajvaidya’s performances were excellent.
After the intermission, the play becomes serious, and focuses on tackling the crucial issue of Hindu Muslim divide. Honest communication around these issues is important and therefore I would highly recommend this play. The events reach a point where Devendra’s “deal in the making” with GSK has fallen through and he is unable to fulfill his contract with Sharuk, and must now accede to losing his manhood. This case is heard in the court of SABU (South Asian Business Union), by a bunch of patriarchs, who insist on conducting Hindu prayers, before the case is heard, and insist that Devendra’s counsel, Pushpa who is dressed in pants, supposedly as a man, change her attire and come appropriately dressed as a woman, in a saree or a salwar. Some of the distractions from the original story are meaningful and show the state of affairs (for instance, in secular India, it is a norm for Hindu prayers to be conducted before many business or legal or government proceedings).
Other distractions however, were useless distractions (including the celebration of Holi or court’s insistence that Pushpa change her attire, which she did). (It alluded to the patriarchal aspect of the culture, and it seemed like an important stereotype that should have either been dropped entirely or focused upon more strongly. It annoyed me that while racial stereotypes were being questioned, such blatant and outrageous gender stereotypes were simply showed to exist and then accepted!!) In any case, the story veers from Shakespeare’s version and some of these distractions could have been dropped. In fact, the play could have shed minutes and characters, and focused on the most pertinent issue it was seeking to highlight.
While I don’t fully agree with the way in which the Hindu-Muslim issue is highlighted (would be a whole blog by itself), it is about time that these issues of racial divides get our attention. The play provides a great starting point for future discussions, and raises important thought-provoking questions about religion, philosophy, human expectations, and behavior. I would highly encourage South Asians to see this important production, that EnActe Arts has so boldly brought to stage. For tickets, go to http://www.enacte.org .