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Where the Wild Things Are 

A haunting mix of Indonesian music and Shakespearean mystery

Wednesday, Oct 19 2005
Gamelan is probably Indonesia's biggest export after coffee. But mention the word to many people and they think you're talking about a character in Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter rather than one of the most haunting and influential types of music to come out of Asia. The sometimes-ethereal, sometimes-riotous bongs, whistles, and clangs that make up the typical gamelan ensemble have become increasingly familiar to Occidental ears over the last few decades. Such ensembles abound (the American Gamelan Institute lists more than a hundred groups in the U.S. alone), and the art form has inspired many Western artists, including minimalist composer Steve Reich, the Velvet Underground's John Cale, and theater/movie director Julie Taymor.

Gamelan (which means "orchestra" in Indonesian) has traveled so widely beyond the islands of Indonesia that it requires no huge leap of the imagination to see how it -- together with Indonesian shadow theater and dance -- might find its way into productions of plays by that most monumental of Western cultural figureheads, William Shakespeare. From monarchs and lovers to spirits and monsters, the characters that people Shakespeare's comedies and dramas find direct correlations in the archetypes of Balinese wayang (shadow puppetry). Similarly, music and song, which make frequent appearances in Shakespeare, are founding principles of Javanese and Balinese performance. It's no surprise, therefore, to discover that major Shakespeare companies, such as the U.K.'s Royal Shakespeare Company, frequently uses gamelan instruments (not to mention Romanian cymbaloms and goatskin bagpipes from the Middle East) for productions.

No single work by the Elizabethan playwright seems to have a more intimate relationship with Indonesian cultural traditions than The Tempest. Run a Web search on "Shakespeare" and "gamelan," and most of the links will take you to Southeast Asian- infused Tempests. Ron Jenkins' version last year at La Mama Theater in New York, for example, made use of Balinese shadow puppets and choreography to tell the story of the exiled Duke of Milan Prospero's banishment to an enchanted island -- and his subsequent triumph over those who banished him -- through the memory of Prospero's slave Caliban. Meanwhile, a 1996 production at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology incorporated the skills of Balinese dancer/choreographer I Nyoman Catra and composer/singer Desak Made Suarti Laksmi, then artists in residence at MIT, to bring out the themes of belonging and alienation in Shakespeare's play.

Last week, I sat in on a dress rehearsal of A (Balinese) Tempest, part of "A Gathering of Gamelans," a two-week festival celebrating Southeast Asian music, dance, puppetry, and shadow theater now running at Fort Mason Center. I took my place in front of a 30-by-15-foot screen, behind which the play would be performed in a carefully assembled collage of Shakespeare's text, gamelan music, shadow puppets, human physicality, vocal performance, lights, and delicately hand-painted scenic projections. As the run-through progressed in the fits and starts typical of productions that depend upon the seamless coordination of so many elements, I sat there munching jelly beans in the dark and wondering: What is it about The Tempest in particular that lends itself so readily to Indonesian musical and theatrical ideas?

Some scholars who have written about Southeast Asian interpretations of this play, such as Marcus Tan of the National University of Singapore, point to the connection between the ritualistic elements of The Tempest (such as magical incantations and dances) and the highly symbolic nature of Indonesian performance. Others, like MIT's Evan Ziporyn, see the link as having more to do with the play's colonial theme: "The Tempest," he wrote, "is based on western misconceptions about 'exotic' tropics -- the same kinds of things that Balinese music suggests to the western imagination."

In the ShadowLight Productions/ Gamelan Sekar Jaya version playing here, the connection is more about monsters and magic. In the opening scene, for instance, director Larry Reed, whose background in Balinese performance stretches over 30 years, whips up a sea storm of such dramatic proportions that it assaults all the senses. Drums ricochet, gongs clang, and an eerie tuned percussion theme that seems to be based on a version of the Western pentatonic scale rings out across the room. A tiny shadow-puppet ship tosses on an inky sea. Then a towering silhouette, this time a real actor, rises above the waves like Godzilla, wearing an intricately fashioned shadow mask. In one short scene, the powers of the banished duke seem all-encompassing, incontrovertible. Similarly, while many productions of the play turn Caliban into an almost-human figure, in this staging he is a cartoonish beast with stooping gait, bulbous nose, fangs, and long fingers. As Reed puts it, "Indonesian culture doesn't focus on the triumph of good over evil; what's more important is the balance between them."

The production borrows several filmic techniques to create an aura of enchantment and fluidity. Lights cross-fade toward the end of Act 1 to reveal Prospero eavesdropping on a conversation between his daughter and the shipwrecked son of the king of Naples. Perspectives constantly morph -- sometimes the shadows of live actors loom large behind the screen, other times characters are portrayed using shadow puppets. Beautiful hand-painted backgrounds depicting trees, rocks, and shrubs appear and disappear. At one point, the "midnight mushrooms" alluded to in one of Prospero's speeches emerge out of thin air. In another, the usual chorus line of spirits is replaced by a lurid cinematic montage of gamelan instruments projected onto the screen in bright colors. The effect of the splashy technicolor after so much black-and-white shadow-play is startling against the clamor of drums, cymbals, and flutes.

If there's any single element that conveys the realm of the unreal in The Tempest, it's the music. The play has long been considered Shakespeare's most musical work -- the coupling of song, music, masque, and dance with lyrical poetry is what gives its enchanted-island setting that ethereal quality. Balinese musician I Made Terip's original gamelan score -- featuring metallophones (tuned metal bars struck with a mallet), chimes, gongs, drums, flutes, stringed instruments, and a voice -- envelops the story. Many characters and scenes have special musical themes. The debauched shipmates Stephano and Trinculo, for instance, are accompanied around the island by rollicking, syncopated sequences that capture the characters' drunken mood. The spirit Ariel, a Trickster-ish, monkey-shaped shadow, is associated with a high-pitched melody and what seems to be the noise of a quacking duck. In the absence of some of Shakespeare's most gorgeous poetic sequences -- Reed's contraction of the three-hour-long text into some 70 minutes keeps the story rolling along, but does so, unfortunately, at the expense of lyricism -- the atonal and mystical sounds of the gamelan ensemble must convey the play's emotional core.

The "Balinese" in A (Balinese) Tempest is in parentheses, I guess, because this production is more inspired by Balinese culture than faithful to its performance styles. (For anyone looking for a taste of traditional Indonesian theater, the first week of the "Gathering" featured plenty of that.) Such inspiration is a ShadowLight hallmark: From The Mahabharata to "Kubla Khan," the company has drawn on numerous sources for its piquant blend of Southeast Asian and Western theatrical traditions. Perhaps it's time to venture beyond the well-worn path trodden by gamelan Tempests into the realm of gamelan As You Like Its, Cymbelines, and Macbeths.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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