Plugged In Shadows

Jan 15, 2016

Wayang kulit, or shadow puppets, are the primary form of theater on Bali. A new form, wayang listrik, is combining electric lighting, larger screens and other effects for larger venues and audiences.
Credit Noe Tanigawa
In the Kennedy Theatre production, “Subali-Sugriwa: Battle of the Monkey Kings,” costumed dancers, mix with shadow dancers and puppets, dissolving the barriers between shadow and reality.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

    Shadow puppet performances are still a vibrant part of village life on Bali.  Flat cut outs are silhouetted against a translucent screen by the light of a coconut husk lamp.  Religious and historical epics make up interwoven plot lines that continue for six hours or more through the night.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports, there’s a new twist on the tradition brewing at Kennedy Theatre.

Genuine water buffalo hide Balinese shadow puppets will be used for “Subali-Sugriwa: Battle of the Monkey Kings” at UH Kennedy Theatre.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

“Subali-Sugriwa: Battle of the Monkey Kings” will be performed the last two weekends of January at Kennedy Theatre on the UH Mānoa campus. 

Over the last 4 months, UH theatre majors have been immersed in Balinese music and movement.  They’re presenting “Subali-Sugriwa: Battle of the Monkey Kings” in the new wayang listrik theatre genre.

Director Kirstin Pauka says traditional wayang kulit, shadow puppetry, is expanding to larger audiences and larger venues.   Contemporary wayang listrik , involves electric lighting and larger screens—15 by 30 feet, in this case.  And, along with the traditional puppets, shadow actors and dancers, behind and in front . Pauka says with all the variables involved (puppets, dancers, music, shadows, scenery, moving lights) an unusual amount of ensemble teamwork is required to develop ideas and carry them out.

(l-r) Co-Director Annie Reynolds, Director/Professor Kirstin Pauka, Balinese musician/composer Made Widana
Credit Noe Tanigawa

  Think, an ogre can be tiny or huge depending on how close to the screen or light it is.  A torn napkin can seem a towering, jagged cliff.  Size, perspective, definition, multiple light sources, they play with all this.  Over the last two months, prominent Balinese painter, Made Moja designed and built all the scenery and masks for the production.  Some parts of the scenery were painted around the actors as a scene unfolded in rehearsal.

Talk about community building, this sort of evolution of a project ensures it.  Puppet master Ketut Wirtawan says these productions are commonly done by community groups for local events or religious observances.  He says the energy and spirit of the puppeteer or actor must be transmitted through the shadows.   Co-director, Annie Reynolds says the training sequence, learning about the characters and their representative actions, builds understanding and a movement vocabulary for the characters. 

Master Wirtawan has been artist-in-residence at UH Manoa since October, teaching Balinese puppetry and dance.  Wirtawan adapted a famous Hindu Ramayana story for this unique production:  A powerful demon wants a beautiful goddess for his wife. Legendary monkey brothers Subali and Sugriwa are enlisted to help the gods repel the rejected suitor’s armies. 

Twenty members of the long running UH Balinese Gamelan Ensemble perform the show, which is scored throughout by musician/composer Made Widana.  Widana sings and drums, generally guiding the musical impetus of the show.

Widana’s work in this contemporary music, dance, shadow puppet theatre style is rooted in tradition.  Widana says if he had not been trained in traditional, classical Balinese practices, he would not know how to make new work, like the wayang listrik he has helped create for the UH Theatre department.

Masks and scenery for “Subali-Sugriwa: Battle of the Monkey Kings” were created by designer, Made Moja. Puppet Master Ketut Wirtawan has been artist-in-residence at UH Manoa since October, teaching Balinese puppetry and dance.
Credit Chesley Cannon