In all of Shakespeare's writings, there's only one un-coded and undeniably gay man. He's Antonio, titular merchant of The Merchant of Venice. Without Antonio's unambiguous pining for his best friend Bassanio, there's no play.
Playwright Shishir Kurup brings the merchant's ardor out of the shadows with his Bollywood-infused, Venice Beach-set adaptation, Merchant on Venice. Running through Sunday, April 15, at the Greenhouse Theater Center, the Rasaka and Vitalist Theatres' co-production begins with a declaration of love from Devender ( the Antonio character, played by Madrid St. Angelo ) to struggling Bollywood film star Jitender ( the Bassanio character, played by Kamal Hans ). The plot is set into motion when Antonio loans his beloved a huge sum of money, ultimately risking his own life to cover the debt.
"Shishir's script is both bold and subtle, " said director Liz Carlin Metz. "The way he points to homophobia and misogyny as well as religious bigotryit brings out the social issues that our rippling through our nation right now."
Those social issues include violence as well as less obvious bigotry. In Shakespeare's original, Jews and Christians clash with tragic results. Merchant on Venice pits Muslims against Hindus. Jitender and Devender are Hindi. The man moneylender ( Sharuk, played by Anish Jethmalani ) is Muslim.
"I thought the Hindu-Muslim conflict would a great way to frame the story," said Kurup. "It's a conflict maybe not as known to as many people, but it's there." Kurup has also threaded issues of caste throughout the piece, adding the tension of economic disparity into the plot.
Merchant on Venice made its world premiere a decade ago at Silk Road Theater ( now SIlk Road Rising ), helping to put the then-young company on the map. Both St. Angelo and Jethmalani were in that original production. Kurup has kept the flash and dazzle of Bollywood spectacles ( including big song-and-dance numbers ) but he's also emphasizing the darker elements of the plot.
"You look at the bigotry and the xenophobia in the original and you realize we're all still doing it," Metz said. "With the peeling back of the pond scum of White Nationalism in this country, religious bigotry and anti-immigration are the major cries," Metz said. "Throughout the Western world, people don't get too excited about pink people moving in. They get much more upset when it's some brown or Black or yellow moving in. To call it 'anti-immigration' is to whitewash it."
St. Angelo was intrigued with the idea of returning to Kurup's world. "I was excited to go back and really explore the deeper sides of the characters," he said. Devender, St. Angelo added, is both victim and peacock. "He's privileged and he carries himself in a grand, flamboyant manner. What interests me is the whole of idea of being somewhat closeted, even if you're outwardly confident. At first, he's not sure how to express his feelings, and when he finally expresses them it send him into a spiral," he said.
Unlike many in the 15-member cast, St. Angelo has not Southeast Asian roots.
"I'm Spanish and Italian. I asked 10 years ago and I asked for this production, 'Is there any problem casting a non-Southeast Asian in this role?' "St. Angelo said. "Ideally you'd have all ethnically accurate casts all the time. I asked myself if I was hurting anyone by taking the role." said St. Angelo.
For Metz, Kurup's new version allows the flash and dazzle of Bollywood to help heighten the somber tragedy of Shakespeare's original. "The big, happy Bollywood dance numbers are still there," said Metz. "But so is the other side of that coin. You can't have joy without despair. To love somebody is to also recognize that one day you'll be parted. Every love story is eventually a story of loss."
Merchant on Venice runs through Sunday, April 15, at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets are $25, $20 ( students and seniors ) and $15 ( industry ); visit Greenhousetheatre.org .