Over the last few years, desi flavors have been permeating the global culinary, literary, and fashion scenes. Indian cinematic and musical influences got a start with Slumdog Millionaire and “Jai Ho.” When it comes to theater, the most memorable performance that touched a wide variety of audiences was Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata. That was in the 80s. After that, there have not really been enduring performances targeting the global audience.
A November production, Merchant On Venice, by EnActe Arts, may just be the catalyst to creating a wave of crossover theater. Written by L.A.-based playwright Shishir Kurup, the play uses the plot and iambic pentametric verse of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. The twist is that Kurup’s story is set on Venice Boulevard, in L.A. and throws a spotlight on present day immigrant South Asians in the United States. Portrayals of communal ideologies, prejudices, and stereotypes underpin a plot that explores patriarchal dictats, religious credos, professional ambition, and personal relationships.
EnActe, operating out of Houston, Texas and Bay Area, California, was launched as a collaborative platform, to foster a continuing communion between talent, theater ideas, and the global audience. “There are numerous playwrights in South Asia and in the South Asian diaspora, from Africa to the U.S., who are writing with a world voice. EnActe is a platform for showcasing such works, that include a South Asian basis and a cultural overlay from another nation.” says Vinita Sud Belani, Artistic Director and Founder of EnActe.
In the United States, South Asian theater companies are community-focused, while bigger production houses only use professional talent and mainstream themes. Belani hopes that EnActe will bridge the gap, clarifying further, “EnActe aims to provide a platform for amateur actors to grow their talent with professional input and make the jump to bigger and better. We provide a budget for professional directors and technical teams, to create a professional, learning environment. We are especially excited to showcase contemporary writers and their new works. Occasionally we do shows as fundraisers for other non-profits. Then we try to keep our costs low!”
EnActe’s Board is representative of this financial and thematic commitment. The Board comprises of Jim Gunderson, corporate lawyer turned Broadway Producer from New York; Ajay Chowdhury, one of UK’s most influential Asians; and Belani, a C-level technology executive turned arts-leader.
Merchant On Venice has been staged once before, in Chicago, and was named among the top ten plays of the year by the Chicago media. Such is the polycultural pull of the script that the UK Arts Alliance granted funds for a London staging in 2015. It was also workshopped at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012.
Merchant On Venice will appeal to every kind of theatergoer. The play is peppered with multicultural and multi-ethnic pop references; a kind of Shakespeare meets Bollywood via Hollywood in the grit of modern day Culver City.
The play is co-directed by two seasoned theater professionals. One is Amsalan Doraisingam, a theater director and actor who runs his own theater training company in Malaysia, who was motivated enough to fly to the United States to participate. The other is Sonalee Hardikar, a new Bay Area resident, with theater and theater training experience at the National School of Drama and the Indian Film Institute. The cast blends students of theater from Stanford, UC Santa Cruz and Foothill as well as local South Asian talent and new entrants to the theater scene in the Bay Area.
EnActe has this rare ability to attract and channelize international attention, as illustrated by the story behind their first production. In 2012, Belani met Jean-Claude Carrière, the playwright for Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, who later agreed to present an intimate, story-telling version of the original work, called The Modern Vyaasa. “It was a dream debut show for any theater!” comments Belani of the March 2013 production. Popular demand has driven EnActe to bring back The Modern Vyaasa, staging it in various cities in October this year. “This is the beginning”, says Belani. “Our ultimate goal for the Mahabharata Project is to catalyze the production of Carrière’s full nine hour play…It may take a while!”
An earlier production Noor, was also a period piece, bringing to life the political maneuvers during the reign of Emperor Jahangir, especially the influence wielded by Queen Noor Jahan. EnActe runs the gamut of offerings and is as comfortable staging contemporary stories like Go To Your Room, Mother, a light-hearted comedy about empty-nesters with errant Moms.
There are certain criteria that all of EnActe’s productions have in common: Each has to have a South Asian theme or story, must be told by a South Asian or diaspora writer and must have universal appeal. The productions are “workshopped,” inviting theater professionals and focus groups to brainstorm about all aspects. Incidentally, EnActe plans to hold a series of theater and acting workshops in 2015, including some for children and youth.
EnActe’s November production Merchant On Venice is based on the workshopped script from the Oregon Theater Festival. The play therefore promises to hold true to high theatrical standards and promises the audience an entertaining and fulfilling time.
Nov 14-16, 21-22. Mountain View Center of Performing Arts, 500 Castro St, Mountain View. Enacte.org, (650) 903-6000, mountainview.gov/mvcpa/ticket.html.