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ISSUE 118 VOL 14 PUBLISHED 3/18/2005

Shadow puppets shed light

By Rob Martin
Arts Editor

Friday, March 18, 2005

Many of us have amused ourselves by making two-fingered bunny shadows on the wall. Last Friday’s performance of “Shadow Puppets of Java,” however cast this art in a new light.

Wayang kulit is the indigenous Indonesian form of shadow puppetry. Ornately decorated leather puppets comprise a cast of mythical characters, whose shadows act out epic stories from ancient Hindu tradition.

A traditional Javanese wayang performance lasts nine hours or more, often continuing through the night. Participants socialize, eat and even take naps during an event.

Audience members who attended the show in Dittmann Studio One saw a condensed two-hour version.

A puppeteer called a “dhalang” manages all puppets and voices. A native of Java, Midiyanto Putra was the dhalang for last weekend’s performance.

“My parents taught me the art. It is an honor. Wayang is the highest art form of Java,” Putra said.

A soundtrack was provided by an ensemble of 20 “gamelan” musicians. The musicians created an ethereal mood with drums, bronze marimba-type instruments called “metallophones” and “gong-chimes” – which looked a little like household cooking pots.

Metallophone player and the lone female vocalist, Susannah Smith, became involved with gamelan music when a friend encouraged her to attend a performance.

“As a classically trained musician, this is totally different,” Smith said. “At the first performance I saw, I was utterly entranced. I stayed up until dawn, it was so cool.”

In the spirit of the Javanese tradition, audience members were encouraged to stray from their seats and explore new vantage points. Though moving to the floor from the middle of the top row proved to be difficult, the behind-the- screen view provided a revealing perspective.

Putra gracefully maneuvered a dozen gilded puppets, keeping in mind their individual mannerisms and voices. The view from behind also revealed Putra’s method for adding sound effects.

Though his hands were busy with the puppets, Putra would crash metal plates together with his feet to indicate a particularly fearsome blow or the onset of a treacherous event.

Though the storyline stayed true to its Javanese roots, Putra translated the language into contemporary English.

“The original would have been presented in a high form of [Javanese]. I try to use language that helps communicate with the audience,” Putra said.

All dialogue flowed from Putra without a script. He included humorous and irrerverent ad libs, some of which caught the musicians off guard and caused violent outbursts of laughter and a few missed cues.

In the performance, the story’s hero, Bratasena, meets with his teacher, Durna, to learn about truth. Durna implores Bratasena, “You must learn now. If you don’t, your tuition will go up.” Most audience members laughed at the painful familiarity.

Modern topics added to the script included weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), pornography and even prominent St. Olaf figures. One especially tall puppet said, “I am exactly like President Thomforde, but with a ponytail.”

Assistant Professor of Anthropology Tom Williamson spearheaded the effort to bring the Javanese performance to campus. He coordinated with Joko Sutrisno, music director for the Indonesian Performing Arts Association of Minnesota (IPAAM). Sutrisno co-taught an interim last year called “Music of Indonesia,” which introduced students to the gamelan art form.

Together with support from the departments of anthropology, Asian studies, dance, music and theater, Putra and the Schubert Club Gamelan Ensemble were brought to the campus. “Interest in Asia cuts across disciplines,” Williamson said.

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