Ki Purbo Asmoro’s Wayang Kulit: Shadow-Puppet Theater of Indonesia
Friday, March 16
Better than: Goldman Sachs’s sucker “muppets.”
The first surprise to be revealed on Friday night at the Asia Society: Modern classical Javanese shadow puppetry isn’t so much about shadows anymore.
During the greeting music for this rare local performance of wayang kulit, a projected note pointed out that Indonesian audiences have preferred the light side of the screen for some twenty-five years. Which explained why the superstar dhalang (puppeteer-narrator) Ki Purbo Asmoro faced his screen with his back to the audience while making his two-dimensional buffalo-hide puppets dance, fight, philosophize, slap, and bicker. (Kulit means skin.) During this three-hour performance of Déwa Ruci (Bima’s Spiritual Enlightenment), audience members were able to wander behind the puppetmaster’s screen and take a gander at the shadowy side of the ancient Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata, from which the Bima episode derives.
The second surprise, at least to this wayang neophyte, was how little the dhalang actually does with his puppets.
Apart from a little fancy flipping and twirling, Purbo Asmoro’s creations are beautiful but usually static. The truly exceptional aspect of his performance lies in his stamina-testing ability to function (and frequently improvise) as dramatist, comedian, animator, music conductor, and newscaster for hours at a time while hunkered down in front of his screen. With about 40 musicians onstage, divided equally between the Gamelan Kusuma Laras and the Mayangkara chorus, Purbo Asmoro banged on metal plates, or keprak, with his feet to signal tempo changes and entrances. English translations of his dialogue, commentary, and many in-jokes were projected onto another screen—although at one point the translator threw up her virtual hands to declare that Purbo Asmoro was making private jokes with the musicians about things that happened during the day that were “difficult to translate.”
The third surprise was the unexpected appearance of Barack Obama.
About halfway through, the drama—which involved Bima undergoing a series of tests in order to understand the nature of death—was interrupted by gara-gara, the part of a wayang when the story comes to a stop, clowns appear, and anything can happen. And anything did. Evoking Obama’s four childhood years in Jakarta, where the future president undoubtedly experienced wayang, Purbo Asmoro dropped a puppet version of the President into the show to interact with three court jesters. They encouraged him to invest more in culture than in war before returning to their slapstick routine and a raucous version of a lovely old song (“Warung Pojok”) about a roadside food stall.
American minimalist music was inspired directly by the chiming metal gongs, bowls, and xylophones of Indonesia’s gamelan tradition. And having attended the five-hour accounting of Philip Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts in the nearby Park Avenue Armory three weeks ago, it was impossible to ignore the connection. Glass has written his own operatic version of the Mahabharata, of course, which was only 50 percent longer than tonight’s casually profound journey through the light and dark side of contemporary Javanese culture. Both wayang and gamelan were much looser and goosier than Glass’s machinelike variations, not to mention more accessibly fun. Bima suggested a fascinating jumping-off point for ambitious postminimalists eager to bring it all back home.
Critical bias: I eat gamelan for breakfast.
Overheard: “This wayang has nearly everything you’d experience in Java, except for the giant cockroaches.”
Random notebook dump: Hard to miss the pro-environmental message Purbo Asmoro has woven throughout the story. “We have no more teak,” complains one ogre to another as they make their way through a forest.