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