[An Underwhelming Spectacle]
The story of Meera may not be well-known to an Auckland-based audience – a young woman who is betrothed in childhood to the mischievous Krishna, the cowherd incarnation of Vishnu in classical Vaishnav tradition. Meera then faces endless struggles in reconciling herself to others’ expectations as she progresses through life. Wild Dreamer Productions promise ‘a celebration of tender love and smouldering passion’, an ‘epic stage show’ that will ‘set the venue on fire’. With the bar set high, I was curious as to whether it would deliver for the target audience of ages 5 and up.
Translating a legend into a stage show is no easy task for any one production; Meera’s Artistic Director Aarti Bajaj goes about this by relying heavily on Costume Designer Vaishnavi Jariwala and her team to carry most of the performance. This is bolstered by an international team of choreographers and Ravi Chandra Kulur and Mark Watson’s music. The intention to produce something memorable is certainly present, if the spectacular dance sequence at the beginning is an indicator of what is to come.
Three risers stacked atop each other constitute the only set visible onstage – the graphic design team have decided to project all set pieces onto a curtain. At the onset of Meera’s arrival onstage at the child stage in her life, the script relies on cliches to a fault, allowing for easy laughs placed around misogynistic life lessons for girls, while boys are allowed to run wild and appear in various stages of undress, showing off low hips and waxed chests. Coupled with the deity-like worship that young cis female children perform to the child form of Krishna, my expectations for the rest of the production were lowered significantly. This was particularly stark because the tired gender stereotypes appeared again and again throughout the spectacle, uncritically and unironically embraced by the performers.
The single distinguishable plot point seems to be following the idea that Meera has promised herself in marriage to Krishna and is unwilling to step up to the roles that society thrusts upon her. Sue Den Besten and Kelly Joyce’s script does not do justice to this point at all, relying on long-drawn-out monologues with no clear links to each other, perhaps drawn from early drafts of Ekta Kapoor’s television serials during the last decade. The choreography is the sole highlight of the first half of the performance, with clear talent from the entire ensemble of dancers on the whole, and the pole dancers in particular. The colour-blind casting is an asset to the production’s visual appeal, but it is ultimately let down by a lack of script development and outdated representation embedded in the themes presented by the show.
I spot a musician pretending to play a drum live, out of time with the score playing overhead. This makes very little theatrical sense, and I’m unable to imagine the thought process here. The list of puzzling decisions goes on. Krishna’s character lacks depth and seems to be focused entirely on being a statue, with little bursts of movement to convey the appearance of falling in love with Meera. He is not given any compelling choreography during the much-touted dance sequences, and is reduced to an ornament.
Furthermore, Krishna’s magical character seems to be at odds with Meenal Reddy’s makeup, placing him in the spotlight as an omnipresent deity with abs of steel and a low-riding dhoti showing off chiseled hip bones. It feels bizarre to draw the blue colour of Vishnu’s conventional skin colour contoured onto Krishna’s meticulously waxed abs, like a carefully emphasised microcosm of every unhealthy media stereotype of ‘attractive’ men in one character sketch.
The acrobatics of the performance are startlingly provocative, especially the snake movement sequence in the second half. Marianne Infante’s performance as Uda Bai is the only memorable characterisation of the entire entertainment spectacle by the time it concludes. Her villainous brother, played by Rishabh Kapoor, is not given enough lines or agency to be plausible; I wanted to hear about his story, which is glossed over in favour of an obsessively unhealthy jealousy.
I leave the ASB Waterfront Theatre unconvinced that Meera loved Krishna at all, since I could barely acknowledge the wooden line delivery between the longing looks they gave each other at the three periods of her life portrayed onstage. I struggle to cultivate an understanding of what they were trying to say – the lack of dialogue is underwhelming. I believe the company were trying to achieve a Disney-like production to present a Rajasthani world to a predominantly Pākehā audience, and they succeed on a very superficial level with the costumes and the shapes formed by the actors onstage.
This production doesn’t work because the script is poorly developed, and let down by lacklustre choices about what to use as set. The choreography and the music are the crowd-pleasers in this stage show – those who appreciate Disney-scale productions will have a ball with this one.
Meera played the ASB Waterfront Theatre 31 May to 2 June.