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Balinese Puppetry Involves Shadow Play, Epic Drama

TIMES DANCE CRITIC

Staged on Saturday in the plaza facing Thorne Hall at Occidental College, “The Mahabharata in Shadow” offered a beguiling sample of traditional Balinese Wayang Kulit, a theatrical form in which small, flat leather puppets, manipulated by rods and lit from behind, act out epic dramas against a stretched fabric screen.

The audience sits in front of that screen, watching the puppets’ shadows, which get larger or smaller, in or out of focus, depending on puppet placement. The noble characters in the drama are elegantly shaped and elaborately detailed, with so much leather carved away that they seem to cast as much light as shadow. Hinged at the elbows, they gesture eloquently and speak in archaic Javanese.

In contrast, the lumpen comic servants are hinged at the jaw and speak in the vernacular--in this case English, with plenty of topical jokes and, given the campus environment, comments about teachers.

Walk behind the shadow screen and you see how beautifully painted the puppets are and how much the evening depends on the artistry of one person: the dalang, the sole actor, singer and puppeteer. Maria Bodmann remains utterly tireless in that multiple role even when having to produce hordes of characters, voices and special effects in the battle scenes of “The High Priest’s Challenge,” a play with enough sex, violence, magic and humor to keep any audience happy for 2 1/2 hours.

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Accompanying the performance: gamelan musicians Cliff DeArment and Mike Pievac, whose wood and bronze percussion instruments sound like richer, mellower xylophones shimmering in the night air, and helping make Eagle Rock seem wondrously exotic.


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