Monday, October 15, 2007

Merchant on Venice is EXTENDED!

Due to popular demand, we will be adding 2 weeks of performances of Merchant on Venice! The show now runs through November 18 -- you can catch a preview of the show on

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Review Roundup

Critics are raving about Merchant on Venice! Here's what they're saying:
"Shishir Kurup's remarkable polycultural deconstruction of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, will have an extensive international life...10 times as funny, smart, and intellectually stimulating as The Bomb-itty of Errors...a must-see for anyone who follows progressive approaches to Shakespeare...a big, new, risky, rambunctious show...uncannily accurate and transformative...a superb piece of passionate, irreverent, insightful writing...if you have a teenager studying this difficult play, a trip to see Kurup's eye-popping version will have their eyes bulging out of their sockets."
--Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune

Gerardo Cardenas (left), Andy Nagraj (center), and Marvin Quihada (right)

"BRAVO...a sparkling production...both more hopeful and more ambiguous than Shakespeare's...Kurup's wit and wordplay and the pop culture references peppering the play make it so palatable to a 21st century audience...this show eloquent plea for tolerance and forgiveness...Kurup solves Shakespeare's problem."
-- Barbara Vitello, The Daily Herald

Sadieh Rifai (foreground) and Anish Jethmalani (background)

"CRITIC'S PICK...bold, smart, sardonic reinvention...skillfully weaves in post-9/11 paranoia...layers of cultural dissonance both intriguing and disturbing...Stuart Carden's spirited world premiere staging highlights equally the script's sinister undertones and its giddy polyglot mix of traditional and pop-culture references."
-- Kerry Reid, The Reader

Playing now through November 4 -- purchase tickets online at!

Monday, October 1, 2007

Merchant on Venice is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Check out our review in the Chicago Sun-Times:

Worldly Hindus take on a strict Muslim
THEATER REVIEW | Take another look at the Bard's 'Merchant'

October 1, 2007
BY HEDY WEISS Theater Critic

Note to New York's Public Theater, producer of Shakespeare in Central Park: Send a scout to see the Silk Road Theatre Project's hip, funny, ingeniously reconfigured world premiere of "Merchant on Venice," Shishir Kurup's reinvention of Shakespeare's most controversial play. Stage this production at the outdoor Delacorte Theater and you can bet half the Indian immigrant population of Queens will be lined up for seats, with the Muslims of Brooklyn right behind them.

And you thought this was a story of Renaissance-era Venice, where rich Christian businessmen crassly used, abused and finally destroyed the Jew who lived among them. Think again. Kurup (born in India, raised in Kenya, a longtime transplant to the United States), has a Salman Rushdie-like fluency in cross-cultural, pop-cultural hijinks and a flair for highly ornamented, wildly comical linguistic flights. And in updating his "Merchant" to contemporary Venice, Calif. -- where wealthy, worldly Hindus face off against a prosperous, ultra-conservative Muslim -- he has heightened the controversy for our times and conjured a feast of behavioral and musical correspondences that do Shakespeare proud.

And you thought this was a story of Renaissance-era Venice, where rich Christian businessmen crassly used, abused and finally destroyed the Jew who lived among them. Think again. Kurup (born in India, raised in Kenya, a longtime transplant to the United States), has a Salman Rushdie-like fluency in cross-cultural, pop-cultural hijinks and a flair for highly ornamented, wildly comical linguistic flights. And in updating his "Merchant" to contemporary Venice, Calif. -- where wealthy, worldly Hindus face off against a prosperous, ultra-conservative Muslim -- he has heightened the controversy for our times and conjured a feast of behavioral and musical correspondences that do Shakespeare proud.

Director Stuart Carden's exceptionally buoyant, Bollywood-infused production -- with an ethnic cast that clearly thrives on this material -- is ambitious and delicious on many levels.

Director Stuart Carden's exceptionally buoyant, Bollywood-infused production -- with an ethnic cast that clearly thrives on this material -- is ambitious and delicious on many levels.

The merchant here is Devendra (Kamal Hans), an Indian import-export mogul. Short of cash when it is needed by Jitendra (Andy Nagraj), the down-on-his-luck Bollywood actor he secretly loves -- and who is pursuing the spoiled L.A. princess, Pushpa (a glittering Pranidhi Varshney) -- he makes a deal with Sharuk (the superb Anish Jethmalani), the local Muslim he abhors. With comic genius from Tariq Vasudeva as a mama's boy striver, and inspired work by Amira Sabbagh, Marvin Quihada, Madrid St. Angelo, Vincent P. Mahler, Gerardo Cardenas and Sadieh Rifai, the energy and emotional intensity never flag.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

It never hurts to ask, right? At least that was the theory when we started asking around for money to replace our ugly red folding chairs with spiffy new ones. We anticipated a year-long campaign of cold calls, curtain speeches, and letter writing to bring in the thousands of dollars needed to outfit the entire house with new seats, but today - just a few months after the start of the campaign - we welcomed our new additions.

You can thank Jamil and I for the colors. We spent lots of time in the theatre holding up swatches against the floor and curtains and today we both agreed that we did a fine job - they look excellent.

I guess they're just one more reason to get your "butt" into the theatre this fall...


Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Blargh Entry

Stage Manager Ben Herman shares some of his thoughts on the rehearsal process -- in the style of a rehearsal report, of course!

"...but that might change."

It could be the tagline for any show, but I feel I've been whipping it out far more frequently than normal. With a new play, it's especially important to remain flexible on the production end.

Constant revisions! The show is great though. Being a bit of a theatre history/lit/theory buff, I enjoy reading a really solid new play. A wiser man than me once assured me in my youth-ier youth that 70% of all theatre sucked - now that I'm older I realize how easy it is to mess up even a good play. The first place to start, though, is with the text - and this delivers. It's going to be lovely.

Now I need to get a clean copy of this script.

Putting it all together - the thing is TECHNICOLOR! There's so much to love about this play - the text, like I mentioned above, is a source of great satisfaction, but it's also full of color, physically, literally, every which way! This is reflected in the set, which reminds me of the coral reef.

Gotta say: I'm a huge music lover. I listen to a lot, and love so much of it! There's something about original compositions, though -- Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with pulling from the pre-recorded canon -- but there's something about custom-tailored sound that runs the words through me, if that makes any sense.

And furthermore, I've discovered a new love -- Indian par-tay music!!

Wow, I have a new respect for the professional props designers. How many are there in Chicago, anyway? Dan does great stuff. We've mostly been working with rehearsal props up to this point, but we're starting to introduce the actual props and they look great.

Another one of those aspects I haven't seen in the flesh yet, but soon enough! I have a new understanding of the layer closest to the actors, and watching them begin to live in their largely-unfamiliar rehearsal clothes has been interesting, culturally.

Man, If I think the set looks cool NOW... I can't WAIT to see it lit! It's so dark now. Under the work lights everyone's face is all dark.

We've found a fantastic dialect coach for this production and it has made a world of a difference. Also, there's something soothing about the Indian dialects...

There's a freedom and joy in these moves, and even though they're rough around the edges yet, I can see the spirit of the dance coming through a little. I love it. (The production team has a Bollywood night planned next week -- can't wait!)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Music of Merchant

I’m supposed to be at Great America right now riding roller coasters.

Paid attention to the weather people and stayed home.

It better thunderstorm sometime today in Gurnee or I am going to be pissed. So instead, I’m doing laundry and working on Merchant.

Just received e-mail from our choreographer, Alka, regarding the two dance sequences for Merchant.

We’re cutting and pasting several sequences of music together and the music will develop as the choreography develops. Should be fun to see the final product.

The notion of pastiche has been on my mind since I first read the script. The world of Merchant on Venice is massive from the scope of the cultural conversation in the play to the myriad of references and allusions scattered on every page. Shishir is a smart dude and if I am able to understand 75% of the references, I will be lucky.

How about the master of pastiche, Baz Luhrman? No matter how cool I would like to be, I’m a classicist at heart. When I score a play, leitmotifs and meaningful key structures abound while characters have their own instruments and situations have their own rhythms. I learned a lot in college and I’m spending the rest of my life figuring out what to keep and what to throw away. Yup, there’s a definite love/hate relationship with academia.


Anyway... Baz Luhrmann.

I went back to Baz’s film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Although it was not a critical success, the use of music (definite pastiche) is sensational and completely insane. Whose crazy idea was to mix Garbage, Wagner, Butthole Surfers, Des’ree, Mozart, Radiohead, and Stina Nordernstam? It’s unbelievable and inevitable simultaneously!

Wow... can I try this method?

Why does it work? Is it the solid combination of music/emotion/context? Does the music somehow loyally adhere to the overall dramatic arc? Is it gut instinct? Did they go for broke and hope it would work? Was it trial and error? Was it just another cog in a campy design that was barely controlled? If everything goes over the top in concert then did all the designers feel compelled to join the party?

I’m in uncharted waters.

What to do?

Have to re-login... my partner Todd’s Itunes library is on our main login so I need to use another one. God forbid that some of my stuff end up on his Ipod. Must suck to live with a sound designer. Especially one whose hearing is going and can’t wear headphones.

Sonic hell for Todd.

So first thing’s first. I need to listen to as many musicians referenced in the script.

Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., The Rat Pack, at least the singers.

Esquivel, Mexican lounge God, reminds me of some Ennio Morricone remixes I know. Morricone somehow defined a certain cool in his scores for the Italian spaghetti westerns. I wonder what he thought of Gil Evans. These remixes really tell a great story in their pseudo 60’s In Like Flint lounginess. Carol has her sharkskin suit and I have my Morricone lounge mixes. God I love that vintage Hammond B3 sound.

The Doors... man... that music is so iconic. Listening to L.A. Woman and Strange Days. The chord progression at the end of the chorus of Strange Days is something I need to come back to.

Leif Garret... really? Maybe I should just watch The Surreal Life. Ok, ok... listening to borrowed time.

INXS... listening to Devil Inside. Hmm. For some reason, the production, melodic structure and the vocals remind me of John Cale/Lou Reed, particularly Songs for Drella.

Ann-Margaret... listening to Thirteen Men... love the vibes.

Pat Boone... holy cow, he recorded “In The Metal Mood”. Listening to Pat Boone sing Stairway to Heaven. This is cracked out.

Sheila Chandra... spa anyone?

Mohammed Rafi... the great things about Silk Road -- I learn so much about music I don’t come in contact with often. Amazing.

Kishore Kumar... the polyrhythms... Ennio and Kishore seem to share an aesthetic.

Todd... stop hanging over my shoulder and messing with the mouse.

Ozmati... so many influences... hip hop, Latin, salsa, jazz, a bit of funk...

Quetzal... Chicano band from East L.A....Migra. The lead singer Marha Gonzalez has one big colorful voice.

Santana... African Bamba. And Batuka. The new stuff is so much glossier than the old stuff.

Antonio Carlos Jobim... there’s seems to be a lot of mallet work in all of this music. Vibes and marimbas... a bit of xylo.

First impressions of the music of the musicians mentioned in Merchant:


What a terrific exercise. Shishir has given me tone, texture, color, rhythm.

Although it’s a pastiche of artists, they somehow make sense together.

Off to do something with this stuff I have in my head. After I put the wash in the dryer.

Rob Steel

Sunday, August 19, 2007

A Day In the Life of Properties Designer Dan Pellant (actually two days condensed for dramatic effect)

7am (Background Music - Beatles: “Good Morning, Good Morning”)
Wake up, stare at the wall for about 5 minutes and grumble about having to move a muscle past the edge of my bed. (Not a morning person here, I won't lie.) I stumble out of bed, taking care to avoid stepping on the antique hot plate that seems to have wandered out of the stack of miscellaneous props in the corner and made its way into the doorway. (Perhaps it was trying to escape?) Open my day planner; “MERCHANT PROPS SHOPPING” is scrawled across the weekend in black sharpie-wonder what I'm doing today?

I log on to the the computer and post some ads on craigslist asking for broken camera phones, PDAs and pagers.and a few other miscellaneous items. Mapquest an address, grab a Slim-fast can (breakfast of champions) and I'm out the door. Pause halfway down the stairs. Run back up, dig through a pile of papers, find the one titled “Merchant Props,” and run back out.

8:29 am (Background Music - Raymond Scott: “Powerhouse”)
I'm number 17 of 20-something, awaiting entry to the home of an anonymous someone so I can pilfer through their belongings like a raccoon in an over-sized dumpster. Part of my typical weekend ritual is hitting at least one estate sale in hopes I might find a good deal on something I need - a bargain on an item from the catalogue of this person's life. Apparently, this catalogue is part Sears 1945 & part Pier 1 1992. It's beautiful, and there is plenty I'd love to buy - but I can't really see anything I actually need. Except that syringe looking thing... and those jumper cables...

11:05 am (Background Music - Daft Punk: "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger")
IKEA! Massive, beautiful and terrifying in all the ways you would expect the Norse god of modern affordable home living to be. The furniture store that is a small city unto itself, ergonomically designed to ensure you travel to all the floors of the hive-like building as you search for what you seek - a museum of mass produced, unpronounceable modern art you can sit on. My key items for this trip: market umbrella and table. I consult the map while my fellow “tourists” swarm around me like an automated death squad. I become confused and seek out a guide, who points out that it is August and if I wanted summer-type furniture, I should have come during the summer. I head for the exit, but not before picking up a small lighted CD tower, a “Yurgkurdden” or something like that... this may prove useful...

1:16 pm (Background Music - Jimi Hendrix: “All Along the Watchtower”)
Devon Avenue. Indian/Pakistani neighborhood. Not sure what the nickname is so I've dubbed it “NewDelhitown” - because “Little Bombay” sounds kinda derogatory. A good haul all in all, in spite of quizzical looks from some shopkeepers. I get the biggest one from a woman behind the counter when I ask about the price of a Muslim holy water set. She looks at me with a confused half smirk. “$30... are you Muslim?” she asks surreptitiously. She knows the answer I'm sure, but nonetheless raises a curious eyebrow when I answer to the negative. I'm used to these questions and looks by this point - I've had to do some odd things in odd places for props over the years. But I get what I came for; tea sets, drinking glasses, Indian Beer, luggage, random items of brass and tin - plus a treat! Rose lassi (yogurt drink with rosewater), some samosas (savory pastries filled with potatoes, herbs and vegetables) and some sort of deep-fried Indian dough ball soaked in sugar syrup (no idea what it's called, but I love it!) My love affair with Indian snack foods continues...

3:00 pm - 6:00 pm (Background Music - Pink Floyd: “Run Like Hell”)
Resale shops are a props designer's best friend. Brown Elephant, Salvation Army, The Village, The Ark - I hit as many as I can before closing time. Some places know me by my face at this point I'm there so often. I actually get a few pieces for rehearsal props if nothing else - suitcase, leather folder, round table which can at least stand in for the market table until I find the real one.

6:30 pm (Background Music - Tsunami Bomb: “Roundabout”)
Drop by unannounced at my friend J's. Ask to borrow his Razr phone for a few months. (It's broken anyway, so it's not like he's using it...) Stop home, reply to one e-mail asking $100 for a broken Blackberry with a, “Thank you but no,” which wanted to be a, “You're loony,” and reply to another explaining the finer details of props donation as I understand it. I ask my roommate if he's found the cigarette case I've wanted to buy off him and when he replies, “No,” I'm out the door again.

7:00 pm - 9:00 pm (Background Music - Reel Big Fish: “Take on Me”)
Hit the Belmont and Clark area in search of cigarette cases, flasks, Zippos and other such tools of debauchery and vice. Realize that the Zippos I want are crazy expensive and decide to look on eBay first. Find a few cigarette cases which might fit the bill, but all the flasks are a bit boring... or covered in skulls with plastic red gems for eyes (not really going to work for this show.)

9:00 pm – 11:00 pm (Background Music - Perry Como: “Papa Loves Mambo”)
Home Depot. Lowes. Menards. Linens N' Things, World Market. Doesn't anyone carry wooden umbrella tables?!? They're useful for fall too! Keeps the leaves out of your lemonade and such... Good deal on spray paint at the suburban Lowes though... and I do loves me some spray paint....

Midnight (Background Music - Green Day: “Insomniac”)
E-mails. Check off items on my list. Enter receipts. Do a bit of research on where I should try to go tomorrow for props. Ponder the concept of sleep but give in to the desire to see people with twice and much talent and half as much alcohol tolerance stand behind a microphone and belt Whitney Huston to a cringing public. Temptation, thy name is karaoke... Out the door again - good night!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Launching into “Merchant on Venice” from actor Anish Jethmalani

Anish Jethmalani plays the role of Sharuk in Merchant of Venice.

It’s been an amazing time to launch into rehearsals for this play. I’ve been very excited about the opportunity of performing in it when we first did the staged-reading earlier this year at Silk Road. The response from the audience during the reading was extremely enthusiastic and the theatre was packed to the gills. It’s also a gift and a challenge to have a go at one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated and complex characters. While Sharuk is the archetype of Shylock, he possesses nevertheless the same attributes that make him so delicious to play. Shylock’s monologues are by far some of the most memorable in Shakespeare’s canon and the speeches of Sharuk also pack the same firepower and punch.

When I first read Shishir’s play last year, I was blown away by how similar, but also how extremely different it was from Shakespeare’s original piece. Similar in the sense that most of the text follows the same physical pattern and structure of the original Merchant on Venice and different in the idea that South-Asian culture attributes and a fresh modernized use of language are completely embedded within this structure to channel its themes and arguments for a contemporary audience. It truly is Bollywood meeting the Bard.

As an actor, tackling this piece from a technical standpoint is not too different from approaching any of Shakespeare’s pieces, but the challenges of execution presents itself in a whole new way beyond just taking on the fundamental text work that is required. Shishir’s play is written in iambic pentameter, so the basic rules of scansion and text work apply. Essentially, the rule of thumb is that all the clues are hidden in the text. Shishir, like Shakespeare himself, has written clues into his play to help us, the actors, guide our way through his dense, complex, and beautiful language: where to lift the language, where to pause, where to pick up a line, where to color a word - it’s pretty much all there for us. We just have to find it. If done properly, the tone of the language can resonate with an audience thus deepening the impact of its ideas on ones ear and mind.

One of the many challenges in this piece is to give truth to what we are saying and that means making sure that every gesture, every word, every intention is grounded in some sense of reality. It also means that the truth has to underscore and reflect appropriately the South Asian and Latino cultures that we are representing in this play. We want to humanize these characters and show them for all their strengths and all their flaws.

I started rehearsals this past Saturday and most of our time thus far has been doing table work and trying to unlock the language to inform our choices that we make as actors. From breaking down the text to giving color and texture to certain passages to shaping our intentions. All of this ground work helps tremendously to take us to the next level when we start to get on our feet. My particular challenge is trying to make Sharuk a completely distinct character that will stand on his own. Yes, many people will compare him to Shylock, but he really is not - he is his own man with his own ambitions, fears, and insecurities and I hope to continue to find as many layers within him that will give him that distinction right from the beginning of this process all the way up to the end.

I look forward to the journey ahead –

Anish Jethmalani

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

A Day in the Production Manager’s E-mail

Production Manager Allie Herryman and Assistant Production Manager Isaac Sernoffsky have been busy preparing for rehearsals (which begin today!!!). The emails fly fast and furious between these two. Below is an excerpt from their email exchanges in the past 24 hours:

Allie: So I’m preparing for the first rehearsal. I’ve been chatting with Ben about paperwork, working through actors’ contracts and crazy rehearsal schedules, getting ground plans and diagrams to the TD and carpenters, and more or less trying to stay afloat and sane. One last thing to get underway is the supply order. Isaac, can you think of anything we need?

Isaac: I think we need a drink... Other than that the important things I can think about are paperwork (mainly bios for my sake so I can get the program formatted), and making sure we have a full cast and crew. Are we cool with a TD or is that still up in the air? I'm having “the Dans” meet tomorrow for the first time, which should be a great meeting of the minds. I'm really excited to get our newest intern on board and in action. By the way, is there anything that you want him to start working on, like the benches, that we have the supplies for? I'm also taking care of all of the RSVP-ing for the big birthday party! It's going to be great to see everyone in a fun, light atmosphere. Anyway, that's what I'm working at this moment...

Allie: Good, and while you’re at that I’m prepping for the production meeting tonight – last one before we go into rehearsal – yikes! Laura’s going to do the note-taking. Stuart has returned from Pennsylvania and Becca (lighting designer) is home from Fargo, ND. It will be lovely to have everyone back together. We’ve also got lots of new faces around the table including – yes indeed – a new TD! His name is “Ziggy” Olson and he’s our first venture into using a single TD rather than a big set building company. I talked to him today and he said the back wall is already built! As for the Dans, yes, I think the bench project will be good for them so we can get the benches into rehearsal in time for them to use ASAP.

Isaac: I'm excited to get the show going! I think it's going to get a great reaction. Everyone has been having some great ideas! See you at the meeting!

Friday, July 27, 2007

Meet the Merchant on Venice Cast!

Hello loyal blog readers! One of the perks of following this blog is that you get the inside scoop on all of the breaking SRTP news. Today, I’m pleased to present you with the cast list for Merchant on Venice, hot off the presses!

DEVENDRA, a merchant on Venice Boulevard: Kamal Hans
JITENDRA, his friend, suitor to Pushpa: Andy Nagraj

SHIVANANDA, a journalist: Vince Mahler
YOGANANDA, his partner: Madrid St. Angelo

AMITHABA, a bartender, friend to Devendra and Jitendra: Marvin Quihada
ARMANDO, an aspiring musician, in love with Noorani: Gerardo Cardenas

SHARUK, a rich Muslim: Anish Jethmalani
NOORANI, his daughter: Sadiah Rifai

TOORANPOI, the clown, employed by Sharuk: Tariq Vasudeva

PUSHPA, a rich heiress: Pranidhi Varshney
KAVITA, her poor cousin: Amira Sabbah

We are thrilled to have so many talented actors on board for this world premiere production. First rehearsal is only 13 days away… as Stuart would say, “Giddyup!”


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Almost Classical Costume Design

Having spent a great deal of my career designing for Shakespeare and the classical repertory, I was immensely intrigued by the idea of Merchant on Venice. When I read the script I was excited by the language, the use of iambic pentameter, the fascinating characters, the references to Bollywood, and the overall vivid imagery of the show. As I reread it, I found that there were ties to Shakespearean production that needed to be retained, as well as parts of the script that needed to be “created” without references to its classical forefather. Merchant on Venice is NOT Shakespeare, but borrowing from Shakespearean design traditions will help enhance and reveal its characters and themes to our audiences.

I also noted that, upon rereading, my design research was going to take me down several paths simultaneously. Although contemporary in time and place, I am not intimately familiar with the mode of dress in Culver City, CA. Nor with Hindu-American or Muslim-American fashions… or traditional Bohra Muslim dress… or with the fashion traditions in India beyond the Sari… or with Bollywood… etc, etc, etc. and the list is endless. Well, at this point I could be totally overwhelmed by what I didn’t know, or just dig in and start learning.

I started to read…and look at LOTS of pictures. Fashion, costumes, social structure… all became important. Hollywood, Bollywood (thanks to Lavina, our dramaturg, we had a great Bollywood film night with the design team… and we learned and shared more in those few hours than imaginable)…LA fashion designers, Bombay fashion designers, ‘60s retro fashions… Everything became research.

I looked at photos of fashion week in NY and LA… as well as London and Asian designers for 2007. I researched religious mandates for clothing, as well as jewelry and body adornment (tattoos, piercings, dyes, etc). I saw Lee’s set model and discussed his design with him. I spent some time on the phone with Shishir, the playwright, discussing themes, intentions, and characters. And now I’m finally ready to do the paperwork for the design… a costume chart scheduling what is worn and when it is worn by the actors, as well as dealing with quick changes. Once that is done, I will be able to get on with the actual design of the piece, putting together composite plates that will show the director and the actors what I want each character to wear in the production.

So that’s it for now… more later when I finish the costume designs.

Carol Blanchard

Saturday, July 21, 2007

From Set Designer Lee Keenan

This is one of those plays that on the first read I was completely engrossed in the wit, characters, style and language. It was stimulating and funny, and I thought this is going to be a breeze to design. Then on the second read I realized there are 17 scenes and 9 locations [for example: the now defunct Petterson’s Frisch Rost (urban legends abound about why its spelled like that)]; where to begin? How about lots of specific research into Culver City? Well we did that, loads of that, I even enlisted family back in Southern California to take photos (see the two below). But what’s next? How to make a lot of locations into one set? How about panic, I like to panic? No, wait…calm down… remember it’s Shakespeare. What do I mean by that? Well, Shakespeare’s rich language establishes locations for you. His plays were originally produced without specific scenery. To design Shakespeare well it you simply need to recreate simple elements that theaters like the Globe had; an upstage center entrance for example. The more I looked at Shishir Kurup's re-imagining of Merchant the more it became clear that Shishir’s language functions in the same way। It is a lush forest of densely packed imagery। He tells us everything we need to know about a space. So where to next? I needed another avenue of research and turned to Bollywood Films. It was a genre I wasn’t versed in, but our dramaturg Lavina is and after borrowing films from her and a great night watching movies with the rest of the design team I had a sense of the aesthetic.

[Now here is the totally random collateral awesomeness that comes from working at Silk Road: the a Simpson’s rerun was on the other day and the episode finished with a Bollywood dance sequence and I suddenly realized Hey! I know that song now! It’s from Johny Mera Naam.]The first thing that leaps out is the colors, bright colors. Well that fits well in West LA, when something isn’t concrete in West LA it is likely to be a bright color. The second thing I noticed was a lack of establishing shoots, the sweeping epic films we watched had loads of locations but skipped the set-up shot of a sign before going into a restaurant that you come to expect in Hollywood studio films. Locations were often simplified, brightened, and beautified. So what the set needed to establish was the feel, and the textures of West LA, it needed to be bright exciting colors, but colors with some potential for danger. A few days of gluing my fingers to each other later I had this half inch scale model.

The action takes place with audience on three sides ( a feature of the Shakespearean stage), on concrete, in front of a cinder-block wall, next to a curved section of corrugated aluminum you see so much in hip LA pre-fab architecture, and under a giant advertising billboard(because what is more LA than a giant billboard). There is more to it than that, but hey I’m not giving it all away for free.

-Lee Keenan

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Some thoughts about Merchant on Venice from director Stuart Carden

There is a fascinating idea in Indian philosophy, most associated with the second century thinker Sage Bharat, that all human emotions are encompassed by the Nava Rasa, the nine emotions (or flavors). According to Bharat all masterworks of art manifest on stage and in the audience the full spectrum of these emotions or essences. The Nava Rasa include; 'Rati' - love or amour; 'Hasa',- humour or comic sentiment; 'Shoka' - pathos and compassion; 'Krodha' - fury, wrath or anger; 'Utsaha'- valor or heroic sentiment; 'Bhaya' - fear, fearful, or that which strikes terror; 'Jugupsa'- loathsome, loathing, horrible, or odious; 'Vismaya' - dismay, amazement or marvellousness and 'Shanta' - peace or calm.

I love this concept and have found it to be true when thinking of my favorite novels, plays and paintings. What these works have in common is their ability to conjure the entire range of the human experience and explore emotions and ideas that range from the pitiable to the sublime. Many of Shakespeare's major works exemplify this multiplicity of emotion, style and color. Think of Hamlet and the whimsical delights of the "players" speech, the desperate love of Ophelia, the thrilling action of the duel and the existential contemplation of Hamlet's "to be or not to be" soliloquy. All of these aspects create a rich portrait that reflects the breadth of human experience. A work like this engages its audience on every level and a contemporary play that serves up all of the of the Nava Rasas is a rare and delightful find. Shishir Kurup's wildly imaginative retelling of Merchant of Venice has just this kind of rich resonance.

On my first read of the play last year the characters, ideas and language jumped off the page. The free-wheeling, colorful and muscular language begs to be spoken, the implications of its politics demand to be debated and its Bollywood dance numbers positively glide off the page. I'm in love with this piece and thrilled to direct the work for SRTP.

And now for something completely different--

SRTP is known for being a company of many firsts. For a director, who wants to engage contemporary ideas exploring who we are as Americans and world citizens at this moment in time, there couldn't be a better company of which to be a part.

With a company of this nature however come some very unique challenges. Casting is one of them. Never before, that I know of, has a play been produced in America with this many South Asian actors asked to tackle language and characters of this degree of complexity. While Merchant on Venice has a contemporary vernacular and a very irreverent and modern sensibility it is also a work written in iambic pentameter with poetic language that could challenge the most skilled classically trained actor. Because plays with South Asian characters have long been a rarity in Chicago and many actors of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan backgrounds have migrated to the East and West coasts where they are represented more often on stage and screen, the pool of South Asian actors in Chicago is comparatively small. There are incredible actors of South Asian descent here for sure and I've had the fortune of working with several in the past, but a play with over fifteen South Asian roles all with specific age and type needs in addition to their ethnicity create casting challenges that are quite exceptional.

One of our hopes as a company is that by producing work by South Asian writers, with complex South Asian protagonists that we will encourage artists of these backgrounds to remain in Chicago. This play is our first step in that direction and it has been quite a healthy step!

Balancing the desire to cast the play with South Asian actors who have an understanding of the culture and mind-set of the roles with casting actors of the appropriate age and temperament for each role as well as finding actors that have the necessary experience and training to navigate Shishir's wonderfully rich language has been an incredible learning experience for me. It has required much discussion within the company and with the playwright as to what is more important -- casting ethnically specific? Or telling the story with the most experienced actors? What trumps? -- the most powerfully told story? Or giving an opportunity for a South Asian actor to develop in a role that s/he might not quite be ready for? In most circumstances these two qualities were not mutually exclusive but in some roles, particularly the older roles where there are fewer actors of SA descent working in Chicago we decided to hire actors with the experience and training to handle the technical needs of the roles and who could fit believably in the world of the play. This decision making process was one that we did not take lightly. Ultimately, I'm pleased with the balance of actors of appropriate ethnicity and actors of appropriate skill and believe the conversations surrounding this decision making process have informed my own understanding and perceptions of self. And in doing so have given me fresh insight into the intersection of race, culture and identity that I hope will inform our approach to the production.

This is a beautiful work and I'm looking forward to getting started on August 10th.

All for now,
Stuart Carden

Monday, July 2, 2007

Notes from Artistic Director Jamil Khoury

Welcome to Silk Road Theatre Project and the Merchant on Venice blog! Where The Bard Meets Bollywood or Shakespeare’s Met His Match in Shishir!

And if that doesn’t conjure up enough for you, then take it from our not-so-pat two sentence summary:

In Shishir Kurup's Merchant on Venice, Venice, Italy intersects with L.A.’s Venice Boulevard in a wickedly funny, wildly inventive and politically provocative re-imagining of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. Written in iambic pentameter and vividly colored by Indian, American and Latino pop references, playwright Kurup transforms Shakespeare's original by injecting the story with Bollywood musical numbers, L.A. Punk, Hindu-Muslim tensions, and a distinctly American landscape.

Trust me. It’s even better than it sounds.

But anyway, as Silk Road’s world premiere of Shishir Kurup’s amazing new play approaches, you’ll be hearing from many of us, so be sure and check in at least once a week. Playwright Kurup, director Stuart Carden, and our entire cast and production team are at the helm of one of the most exciting and unique theatre experiences to come along in years.

Merchant on Venice was one of those plays I absolutely knew we had to produce about a third way into my first read. Aside from the brilliance, humor and utter subversiveness of the piece, I had long been looking for a play that explored the ever-sensitive terrain of Hindu-Muslim relations. It seemed that all the works submitted reflected a pretty clear cultural or political bias toward one community or the other (in the realm of introductions we’d say, “anti-Muslim play meet anti-Hindu play”). That is until Merchant on Venice came along.

As the husband of a South Asian American Muslim man, I have come to recognize that the relationship between Hindus and Muslims in South Asia is way too “”big” and complex and intersected and overlapped to explain away in sound bites or reduce to some sort of “opposing teams” paradigm. It is a relationship that is forever progressing and regressing; it is affectionate and adversarial, intimate and estranged, unifying and divisive. My own Arab-American background renders it all too easy for me to “situate” Hindus and Muslims within the rubric of Arabs and Jews. And while analogies can certainly be drawn, it is the differences that interest me most. Either vicariously or through first hand experiences, I have intuited and assimilated many of the distinct contexts (cultural, historical, political, etc.) that inform Hindu-Muslim relations (albeit through my own very subjective and very American lens), and thus found in Kurup’s script a kindred spirit of sorts, an affirmation of my own journeys, both within the South Asian Diaspora, and within the always rich, sometimes conflicted arenas that bond Hindus and Muslims to each other.

So I thank you for taking this journey with us. Fasten you seatbelts as they say.

Jamil Khoury
Artistic Director