Austin Shakespeare's mashup of the Bard and Bollywood pleases some but not all
Reviewed by Adam Roberts, Fri., May 25, 2012
Twelfth NightZilker Hillside Theatre
Through May 27
Running time: 2 hr., 30 min.
My companions and I arrived at Zilker Park early on Saturday night in hopes of staking out a slab of prime hillside real estate for Austin Shakespeare's latest production, only to be pleasantly surprised by an already massive crowd of patrons enjoying their preperformance picnics. That may sound like a contradictory statement, but obviously having to lay our blankets somewhat far from the stage wasn't what caused my cheery reaction. No, the reason for my smile was the sight of so many people at a production of a Shakespeare play – so many that had it not been a couple of months early, you might have easily assumed that the performance about to take place was of the Zilker summer musical, which traditionally attracts enormous audiences.
Perhaps the draw was the ticket price: free. (Kudos to both Austin Shakespeare and the Austin Parks and Recreation Department.) But my personal hypothesis for the outpouring of attendees was the lure of this particular Twelfth Night, set in the context of Bollywood style extravaganza.
I must confess to a lack of intimacy with the genre that is Bollywood. I've seen my share of representative movie clips, though, and its style contains some of the most unique and identifiable tropes of entertainment culture. So despite my relative unfamiliarity with the genre, it provided a readily recognizable backdrop for Artistic Director Ann Ciccolella's staging of Shakespeare's comedy.
As specificity is the golden rule of theatre, you might assume that the ultra-particular Bollywood style would provide a director's dream lens through which to recontextualize the Bard's work. But blending two entities as distinct yet disparate as Shakespeare and Bollywood is no small challenge. A "broad brushstrokes" approach won't pull off such an amalgam convincingly; what's required is an undeniable rigor for detailed allegory. The text must support every decision, and the novel setting, music, and stylistic apparatus must likewise contribute theatrical novelty that extends beyond a cool idea.
For me, it's in the melding of genres that this production stumbles. I often found myself wondering how the particulars of Bollywood were contributing to, furthering, and elucidating Shakespeare's story. In both the production as a whole and in its individual moments, the brushstrokes sweep especially wide and too often exhibit little clear purpose. However, there are those over-the-top musical numbers, and as I surveyed the reactions on the hillside, it was clear that a great time was being had by many. If you're looking for a spoonful of sugar to help your Shakespeare go down, this could be a good hybrid performance to catch. If you're a stickler for close detail in allegorical interpretation, however, this Twelfth Night may prove a bit overcast.