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A CurtainUp Review
Electric Shadows

by David Lipfert

Overview of The International Puppet Festival '98, Schedule of Events and Links to Other Shows

Traditional Indonesian shadow puppetry is combined with American showmanship in this collaboration between artists from the two related countries. Part of the International Festival of Puppet Theater lineup, Electric Shadows, (Wayang Listrik in Indonesian language), brings an innovative approach developed by the multinational team of I Wayan Wija, Larry Reed and I Dewa Berata.

In the typical wayang (shadow) presentation, a single puppeteer behind a modest-sized white screen manipulates perforated leather cutouts of figures and objects attached to rods. With a light source behind the screen, these cutouts cast shadows that will be visible to the audience seated in front. A gamelan orchestra composed of percussion, tuned gongs and xylophones accompanies the performance.

This Shadow Light production uses a screen the full size of the Public Theater's Newman space. In addition to the shadow puppets there are electronic enhancements for the orchestra, slide projections and dancers. The resulting performance works well for larger spaces and adds a visible human element that would be impossible with the miniature format.

Told as a young man's dream, the boy and his father witness a battle between giants and gods with the victors obtaining a vase of heavenly nectar that will convey eternal life. It is easier to enjoy the succession of images on the magical screen than to follow the story line set far in the future. Mount Mandala must be moved into the sea -- by the giants, of course-- so that the gods can access the nectar. In a deception worthy of Wagner's Ring, the gods cheat the giants out of the treasured nectar container that has fallen into their hands. In a pinch, chief god Vishnu becomes a beautiful dancing temptress with elegant hand movements that will accept nothing less than the glimmering vase from the brutes. All ends happily as the two mortals return safely to their earthly realm.

This presentation by about twenty performers and musicians is in reality a sample segment of a village entertainment that might extend over a few days. In the pre-Islamic world of good and evil forces, frequent battles provide enough action to keep both adults and children entertained.

Occasional color for the blue sea or a red volcano spewing poisonous gasses enliven the mostly black and white show. Moving projections of stars and waves and other light effects set this format apart from the traditional one- puppeteer show. Dancers appearing in connection with puppet cutouts make for an absorbing combination of the animate and the inanimate that in no way strains credibility. The only one disappointment in all this is that the droll American voices tend to turn the characters into the Simpsons.

Conceived by I Wayan Wija, Larry Reed, I Dewa Berata
Directed by Larry Reed and I Dewa Berata
Music and sound design and Miguel Frasconi
Scenic design: I Dewa Berata and I Made Moja
Choreography: I Nyoman Catra
Costumes: I Dewa Berata, Emiko Susilo, Inyoman Catra, Margaret Hatcher
Shadowcasters: I Wayan Wija, Larry Reed, I Nyoman Catra, Ramon Abad, Matthew Antaky, I Made Moha, I Made Sidia, I Made Sukadana, Milko Saraswati Susilo Musicians: I Dewa Berata, Miguel Frasconi, I Dewa Kelut Alit, I Made Subandi, Sarah Willner
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, NYC
Festival Hotline: (212) 279-4200
Reviewed 9/16/98 Performances through 9/20/98
Running time is about 90 minutes

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© Elyse Sommer, September 1998