Review: Plaything of the Gods by Intercultural Theatre Institute (8/9/16)

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Have you ever wondered just how in control of your life you are? Plaything of the Gods is literally about that – hypothesising that human beings are simply puppets, providing entertainment value for higher beings.

Written and directed by Bambang ‘Besur’ Suryono, ITI’s full-time faculty member, Plaything of the Gods is a theatrical production based on the traditional Indonesian dance Wayang Wong and is set in contemporary times. Wayang Wong traditionally uses human actors to take on the what would usually be puppets’ roles, depicting stories from the Hindu Ramayana and Mahabharata. Performances like this contemporary version use a combination of dance, music, drama, art and mask work to create a completed piece of theatrical movement. This piece in particular plays on the meta-theatrical role actors take as puppets, and uses the performers to question who really is the puppet and the puppet master.

Prior to the show’s start, a single lone actor dressed in white walked across the stage mesmerisingly slowly, almost like a lost, wandering soul. This silent movement is one of the techniques innovated by Besur called “Body Pilgrimage” that teaches the performers to become “sensible to the minutiae of sounds, movement and everyday life”. There was complete silence, as each member of the audience continued watching this lone man in anticipation. I felt like I was being watched, where the roles were reversed and I was the performer and perhaps being controlled like a puppet. As the lights went down, the performer continued to walk, until finally resting and settling in a seated position in front of the audience. Several minutes passed before a sound rang out and the other performers emerged, cocooned in cloth, before being born as creatures before our very eyes.

For me, this was a powerful opening scene. As the lone performer continued to walk the stage like a lost soul, the other actors were being re-born into something else, perhaps something or someone with more purpose. This was clearly influenced by the Hindu beliefs of continuous reincarnation. As a non-Hindu, I felt that this was a reminder that although we may feel lost, or be lost, that each day we can be something else; born again.

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In the next scene, performers began playing with their shadows. This was cleverly done with each performer almost dancing from place to place on stage, speaking to and questioning their shadows, commenting “you look like me”, “Where are you?”, “I cannot always be with you” amongst other phrases and bursts of song. The dance style Wayang Wong actually means “shadow human”, so I appreciated this play on words which borrowed the traditional performance style from shadow puppets. However, I did feel that some of the effect was lost here as the performers said multiple lines at the same time, making it hard to decipher the words at times. Perhaps this was planned, however I felt that staggering the words would have helped the audience to appreciate the scene more easily.

As a Westerner watching this traditional, Indonesian-inspired performance, and despite having lived in Southeast Asia for some time, I found it harder to relate to the rest of the performance than I anticipated. This could be due to me having a lack of knowledge of Hindu teachings and the writings of the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

There was one scene, however that I could certainly relate to in a modern context. During the last scene, the performers used masks, dancing to a rhythm. Each performer had their own dance style, at times dancing with each other, and at others on their own as individuals. I was reminded of a night club, several individuals all dancing separately and yet to the same beat, only occasionally dancing together and all with their own “masks” of whatever they may be wearing or the drinks they are drinking in order to “be” (dance) whoever it is that they really are. Later in the scene, the masks were removed and played with, having been taken off their faces, which made me realise that no mask is required and we can all be whoever we are, whoever we want to be and that actually, we really are in control. We are not just puppets, but have a choice and, as the first scene showed us, we may be lost, but have a chance to be reborn again.

Although this would not be the kind of performance I would usually watch, I was intrigued and left me wanting to read up on Hindu mythology.

All in all, I thought the slow, purposeful movement was effective throughout and from the silent focus of the audience, it was evident that the full-house was certainly taken with this artistic performance. The lighting design was effective in changing scenes and with no “backstage”, the slow Wayang Wong style meant that props at the side of the stage could be taken and replaced easily without disturbing the rest of the performance.

I wish the graduates of ITI 2016 all the best in their future careers and look forward to seeing what other roles the future has in store for them.

By Anthony P. for Bakchormeeboy

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