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

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