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Reviewed by:
  • Routledge Handbook Of Asian Theatre ed. by Siyuan Liu
  • Linda Ehrlich
ROUTLEDGE HANDBOOK OF ASIAN THEATRE. Edited by Siyuan Liu. New York: Routledge, 2016. 578 pp. 99 B/W illus. Cloth, $240.

With ninty-nine illustrations, four major sections, and 578 pages, the Routledge Handbook of Asian Theatre weighs in as a major reference guide that surveys, as the publisher's advertising notes, the "rich and diverse traditions of classical and contemporary" Asian performing arts in a "cutting edge overview." And indeed it is. This large volume contains contributions from the worlds of academia, theatrical production, and cultural studies, with specialized reports by theatre historians, costume designers, choreographers, scholar-performers, PhD students, and so on.

The more than fifty contributors are from the United States, Canada, Germany, Australia, Bangladesh, Japan, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Korea, Thailand, Nepal, Tibet, Indonesia, the Uyghur Republic, and India. Several of the authors appear in multiple sections.

There are many ways to enter such a multifaceted collection of writings. One could focus on the traditional, the modern, on gender and performance, on movement or music, or on various intersections among these topics. Or the reader could look for fascinating asides—on musicals or Shakespearean productions in Asia, for example. As Jonah Salz enumerates in terms of early Japanese performance, we could look for "dramaturgic and mise-en-scène continuities" (p. 52).

Editor Siyuan Liu from the University of British Columbia supplies a spirited introduction as well as several subsequent sections. In the introduction, Liu offers an homage to earlier books about Asian theatre upon whose shoulders this book stands. He explains the rather complex structure of this [End Page 483] current volume through a discussion of four (somewhat unclear) parameters: geographical scope, structure, fluid hybridity between tradition and modern in contemporary times, and gender performance. The parameters are not delineated by number after the first, geography, so hopefully this is the correct list. In terms of structure, Liu eloquently explains that the decision was to adopt "a hybrid structure that seeks to balance country coverage with thematic discussion and cross-region comparison, [giving] equal weight to spectacular traditional forms and vibrant modern and contemporary practices" (p. 2).

Rarely has such a range of Asian theatre topics been housed under one roof. The four parts of the volume build upon each other, and also intersect. There are the inevitable overlaps and, at times, the reader has the sensation of "wrestling with an octopus." This is not necessarily an overwhelming sensation but one where the quality of exploration (rather than exhaustive mastery) becomes paramount. It is possible to dip into this book at any point and find possibilities. The Routledge Handbook of Asian Theatre certainly expands our view of the framework of this subject.

Part 1, "Traditional Theatre in Asia," and part 3, "Modern Theatre in Asia," offer succinct overviews and updates. Part 2, "Dimensions," focuses on dance, music, masks, puppets, costume and makeup, and architecture and stage. This section, in particular, offers details that encourage a comparative glance. Part 4, "Perspectives," focuses on spoken theatre, actresses, traditional performances in contemporary Asia, Shakespeare in Asia, and musicals. Parts 2 and 4 tend to move in unexpected directions, expanding the exploration of the field. As key examples, note how chapter 21 ("Modern Asian Theatre and Indigenous Performance") describes the way political movements helped initiate a reexamination of spoken theatre (in the mode of Ibsen or Stanislavski) and a concomitant reappraisal of the need for traditional forms. Jennifer Goodlander and Ashley Robertson's case study of Indonesian women's dalang is fascinating and reflects current research. More of those kinds of case studies would have been a welcome addition. As Sissi Liu points out in another context, women in Asian theatre have tended to be met with both "ecstatic enthusiasm and societal prejudice" (p. 421).

The chapters in the Handbook begin with a paragraph that summarizes (or at least leads invitingly into) the subsequent writing in the section. Some of the writers chose imaginative ways to subdivide their sections. Note, for example, Jonah Salz's division of "Traditional Japanese Theatre" (part 1, chapter 3) into such subdivisions as "Gods, Ghosts, and Madwomen" (referring to...