Sat, 04 Jun 1994

Wayang Week features rich variety of puppet theater

By Gus Kairupan

JAKARTA (JP): From towering structures in masque dramas to tiny puppets manipulated by fingers; from lavishly costumed and decorated performances to the impromptu simplicity of street shows; from stories based on age-old myths, legends and fairy tales to portrayals of episodes in this angst-ridden century...

All these elements were acted out during the recent Pekan Wayang Indonesia-Eropa (Indonesian-European Puppet Week) from May 24 to June 2 at Taman Ismail Marzuki.

Participants in this highly informative and entertaining event were from France, Germany, the U.K. and the Netherlands, who appeared here under the auspices of, respectively, Centre Culturel Francais, Goethe Institute, the British Council, and Erasmus Huis. Switzerland's sole participant, Margrit Gysin, was sponsored by the Swiss embassy.

"Puppet Week" is of course not quite right as a translation or interpretation of "Pekan Wayang" and may have been chosen for conveniences sake. Maybe "Theater of Images" would've been more to the point -- the human actor who played St. Peter (The Moon by Carl Orff) was made up to look like a puppet.


Anyway, the week -- or ten days -- contained a rich variety of dramatic entertainment, including what must surely be the progenitor of the performing arts: story-telling.

In fact, the entire event could be described as something of an excursion through the development of the theater arts, though of course the performances were not exact replicas of what, say, the jongleurs (street entertainers) did in medieval Europe.

They, the street entertainers, are still very much around, but whether their acts are as multi-faceted as those of their ancestors in the 10th-11th century is doubtful.

Aaptheater (Netherlands) with its impromptu props may well have looked at this medieval type of theater, but otherwise has developed its own ideas and manner of presentation.

Certainly the subject matter, dealing with animal rights and, by extension, conservation, is more substantial than that of ordinary buskers.

Temps Fort Theatre (France) also appeared with another age-old form of entertainment: the masque, which may have disappeared altogether from the European scene.

The use of masks is probably the only element related to ancient Greek drama, but otherwise the European masque (14th-15th century) is totally different. Besides, unlike Greek plays which were public events, the European masque was court entertainment by aristocrats for aristocrats. Though the masque may now be non-existent in Europe (some of its music has apparently survived), it is still very much alive in Indonesia (topeng), so what the French troupe did was work together with artists from Bali (they've been here for a month prior to the Puppet Week) and worked out a program which will be taken to various countries in Southeast Asia and France.

Hands-in-puppets marked the presentation of Faulty Optic (U.K.), but this wasn't an ordinary Punch & Judy show. The trio went much further in, applying some aspects of Japanese bunraku puppet theater -- the manipulators in black outfits that covered them from head to toe. This surrealistic presentation was definitely not a "for-all-ages" kind of play, dealing as it did with the isolation of man, acted out by characters that were half-human (or half-puppet, rather) and half-sack. Not a very cheerful subject, but it did provide a glimpse of the unlimited possibilities of puppet theater. Imagine real people hopping about in sacks!

Which brings us to puppets on a string, the speciality of the Duesseldorfer Marionetten Theater from Germany. Their pre- sensations featured adaptations from operas, one of which was Mozart's Magic Flute. It features genies flying about, which in the actual opera doesn't look as "natural" as in the puppet version. The Magic Flute of course has the perfect ingredients for puppet theater, and combined with the gorgeous (recorded) voices of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Franz Krass, Roberta Peters, Evelyn Lear, and other opera stars, you'd be forgiven for preferring the puppet version over the original. Marvelous theater and marvelous entertainment.

But so was the one-woman show by Margrit Gysin from Switzerland. Dressed up as a tree, i.e. in layers and layers of textile (she must have suffered in the heat) within which the tiny puppets were hidden, she had the small audience enthralled with the story about seven brothers who were turned into ravens as a punishment for failing to fetch water which would sustain their little sister. The tiny puppets, not much more than five centimeters tall, served to enhance the story-telling -- a dying art of which Margrit may well be one of very few masters.


A revelation was the presentation of Ki Dalang Khasman's Wayang Kulit Kontemporer (Contemporary Wayang Kulit). Now here's an ancient art adjusted to the times, making use of whatever this century offers technically and dramatically. If you prefer watching the shadow you no longer need to move to the other side of the screen. Clever projection of lighting takes care of it all, alternating shadow image with real puppets. It involves three dalangs (puppetmasters), one on the front side and two on the backside, handling a set of identical wayangs. Using both sides of the screen simultaneously and for different actions gives this type of wayang a depth which is lacking in traditional wayang kulit.

The accompanying music also revealed something radically different: there was a short section which had the three sinden (singers) singing in harmony, i.e. in intervals which, in diatonic terms, came close to a perfect fourth. It may well lay to rest the commonly held belief that pentatonic systems are unsuitable for harmonic music.

Audiences were not large, but then, these kinds of theater have an intimacy that does not lend itself well to immense crowds of onlookers. The Pekan Wayang Indonesia-Eropa is worthy of repetition if only because it provides an opportunity for people to get together to enjoy and praise -- or not to enjoy and condemn -- actual performances. Still, it's more than can be said for television which does not encourage people to go out and mix with others.