Sat, 01 Apr 2000

Butet's monolog probes diseased Indonesia society

By Rita A. Widiadana and Endi Aras

JAKARTA (JP): Visitors to Taman Ismail Marzuki arts center last Monday turned their back on films of Hollywood stars like Tom Hanks, Kevin Spacey or Denzel Washington, which were playing at the on-site movie theater.

They were drawn instead by local artist Butet Kertaredjasa. Performing his latest monolog Mayat Terhormat (The Respected Corpse) at Graha Bhakti Budaya, Butet attracted hundreds, many of them young, while seats in the movie theater were empty.

It was an unusual sight in the capital, which is often maligned as culturally deficient compared to the world's other major cities.

Tickets for the show, although more expensive than movie tickets, were sold out a week before the performances. Sitting in the front row were infrequent theatergoers such as Army Strategic Reserves Command chief Maj. Gen. Agus Wirahadikusumah, noted economist Sri Mulyani Indrawati, banking analyst Pradjoto and local celebrities, most of whom are better known for frequenting nightspots.

Accompanied by Orkes Melayu Banter Banget, led by Butet's musician brother Djaduk Ferianto, Butet opened the show with a witty round of remarks.

As Djaduk played the popular Malay-Indian derived dangdut music, Butet cavorted in trademark moves of a dangdut singer, to the amusement of the audience.

The assumption may have been that Butet would treat the audience to his famous impersonations of public figures, including former presidents Soeharto and B.J. Habibie.

In Mayat Terhormat, written by Indra Tranggono and Agus Noor, Butet takes on a serious role.

"I don't want to be trapped in a stereotyped character or perceived merely as a joker or a clown," he said.

Playing Siwi, an old and lonely graveyard keeper, Butet showed his range in excellent acting, vocal talent and stage mastery. He effectively used minimal stage elements, consisting of two large screens for the interior of a jail and the graveyard where the story takes place.

Graha Bhakti's team did an excellent job on the lighting. It successfully evoked the emotions of Siwi and helped create the gloomy atmosphere on staged.

Dressed in a dark blue prison uniform and with his face made up, Siwi tells his story.

"Why should I stay here in a rotten jail. Am I an important man, a corrupt official or a political leader? No, I am just a little man -- a graveyard keeper."

Siwi was jailed for testifying on incidents of violence he witnessed at the graveyard.

The plot of the story rambles from the past to the present, and the future. Through the mind, eyes and heart of Siwi, Butet probes the pressing issues affecting contemporary Indonesian society, criticizes social and governmental systems, mocks snobbish officials and takes aim at neofeudalism.

Siwi's flashbacks reveal many clues to hidden and covered up cases of abduction, killings and the legion atrocities committed by the authorities.

"Every day, I smell the stench of death. Men wearing masks and Army uniforms dump dozens of corpses from their trucks in my graveyard," recalls Siwi.

The graveyard, Siwi finds, has been transformed into a killing field for factory workers, student activists and unknown victims.

"Who are those cold-blooded men who have the heart to treat people like animals? Even an animal still knows its friends and enemies," cries Siwi.

He recognizes one of the dead bodies as the legendary labor activist, Marsinah, who was abducted, raped and killed in 1994. "Mbak....mbak (sister), could you tell us who killed you?" The soul of Marsinah remains silent.

He also finds a dying student activist.

"You're still alive ... still alive. Why were you here, who brought you here," Siwi asks.

The suffering student only insists that Siwi tell everybody about the cruelty, the never-ending coercion of his friends and other helpless people.

"Why should they kill these innocent people, while the killers still enjoy their wealth. Even if they die, they will be treated as heroes and buried at a heroes cemetery," complains Siwi.

He mocks the warped concept of a "hero" in Indonesian society.

"It is incredibly strange.In my country, a hero is a person who has a gun, power and money. All Army personnel are heroes."

Did the last comment sting Agus Wirahadikusumah, who is known as a military reformer?

"No, I really enjoyed Butet's performance. It was a cultural satire that can make us think and contemplate," Agus said after the show.

In Mayat Terhormat, Butet, Djaduk and the stage crew did a great job. Jakarta theatergoers should now have a different view on cultural events. They should know that they can, after all, be serious, thought-provoking yet entertaining.