Review: Bollywood Twelfth Night by Austin Shakespeare
by Michael Meigs
Artistic director of Austin Shakespeare Ann Ciccolella is a dab hand at relocating the settings of Shakespeare's works while preserving the coherence and vigor of the material. This, her second go at producing a Bollywood-influenced interpretation of Twelfth Night, makes me regret that I didn't see the 2012 production, presented free of charge in Zilker Park. Both have benefited from the sly wit of Prakash Mohandas's choreography, but one advantage of this production is evident from the moment you step into the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center:
The concept realized by scenic designer Evonne Paik Griffin is both epic and ethereal -- semi translucent drapes hung high above the stage, lit and shaped to evoke a fairy kingdom, a meld of the Taj Mahal and exotic skylines from all across the Middle East and South Asia. It's all the more impressive because it hovers above the action directed in classic Shakespearian bare-stage style, with shifts of scene suggested by little more than a piece of furniture.
Twelfth Night's the one where young VIola survives a shipwreck in which her twin brother Sebastian may have been lost. While we wait for that inevitable happy-ending reunion, she disguises herself as an eunuch Cesario and has no problem at all getting engaged by local ruler Duke Orsino as page and messenger. VIola/Cesario, immediately enamored of the count, has to play go-between in his remote courting of the Lady Olivia. Shakespeare gives us an abundance of rowdy clowns -- rambunctious tippler Sir Toby Belch, timorous Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Feste the jester. As well as their victim, faithful but baleful Malvolio, a righteous servant who is harshly deceived and never really set right.
Ok, we're situated now, aren't we?
As always, Ciccolella elicits smooth performances and excellent elocution from the cast. Tamil Periasamy sets a high bar from the first, parsing and pronouncing the iambics with admirable flair -- a veteran of many Shakespeare productions, he has also conducted master classes in Shakespeare monologues, at which the merely curious were also allowed to watch. The major players are close behind him in eloquence.
This Ilyria of the imagination transforms with little strain into a Hindu setting. Aaron Kubacak's costumes are a major factor. It's striking that Feste the jester is garbed in pantaloons and cone-shaped hat, apparently right out of commedia dell'arte. I can't tell whether this is a a deliberately disconcerting choice or a surehanded bit of dramaturgy. Google searches provide looks at the clownish figure Vidushaka from Sanskrit drama, with painted face or masked but with costuming different from that seen here.
Feste is a rascal and contrarian, of course, and Meredith O'Brien confidently struts and sneers about the stage. In my imagination Feste stands especially in contrast to Malvolio. Ben Wolfe does some fine slow burns, huffing and puffing in that role, but he's put upon, not ridiculous. Who doesn't dream of having greatness thrust upon 'em?
These two share aspects of ill temper, but they're otherwise entirely different. Once the schemers lock up the entirely sane Malvolio in a cramped, horrific, and vividly presented hellhole, Feste is the principal tormenter of that good but deluded servant.
As Viola/Cesario, young Manali Sunkara wears her heart on her sleeve, even though she dares not speak of her infatuation. Her funniest moments are those of deadpan panic, especially when Lady Olivia falls violently in love with the young messenger.
Michelle Jackson as Olivia is an elegantly self contained noblewoman; Cicolella pushes the comedy a bit too far for my taste when she has Jackson come crawling across the stage toward Viola/Cesario with all the shamelessness of an animal in heat.
It's a treat to see Ev Lunning with turban and curling mustachios as Sir Toby, the long-limbed kinetic Max Green as foolish Andrew Aguecheek, and Natalie Tafakori Crane as their confederate Maria, smarter than the two others put together.
But let's not forget the dance! The clicking comedy and entangled intrigues of Twelfth Night aren't hampered in the least by dance breaks. Act I is wrapped up with a delightful although entirely unrelated dance of the umbrellas, and at intervals in Orsino's court lithe young maidens bewitch us with movement. And in good Shakespearian fashion, there's a jig at the end—one that's from someplace closer to Mumbai than to Southwark.
November 04 - November 21, 2021
701 Riverside at South First,
Austin, TX, 78704
Nov. 5 to 21, 2021, Thursday - Saturday, at 7:30 p.m. Sundays at 3 p.m.
Rollins Theater, Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W Riverside Dr, Austin
Starting at $24 at The Long Center