Arts Review Theatre

★★★★★ Review: Stream of Memory by Papermoon Puppet Theatre and Esplanade – Theatres on The Bay

Excellent puppetry immerses audience members in a mystical river.

CategoryScore (out of 10)
Direction (Maria Tri Sulistyani)9
Performance 9
Puppet Design / Puppet Engineers (Iwan Effendi / Anton Fajri and Muhammad Alhaq)10
Choreography (Dapheny Chen)8
Music and Sound Design (Yennu Ariendra)8
Lighting Design (James Tan)8
Multimedia (Gilang Kusuma)8
Costume Design (Retno Intiani)8
Total68/80 (85%)
Final Score:★★★★★

There are times when a theatre production is so universal, it needs no words at all to convey its message. The world of puppetry happens to be able to do that especially well, utilising not just the power of physical, non-verbal theatre to breathe life into the simplest of props, but also strong production design to fully immerse audience members into another world for the duration of the performance.

For years now, Papermoon Puppet Theatre has been doing just that with their productions, and in their latest work, bring their craft to the Esplanade’s Singtel Waterfront Theatre. Directed by Maria Tri Sulistyani, Stream of Memory is a theatre production for audiences of all ages and backgrounds, telling a poignant tale of coexistence, and the healing power of nature, combining puppetry, dance and visual media. Created in response to the disappearing rivers consumed by urbanisation and modern life, Stream of Memory follows a relatively simple narrative, where a child is swept away from their village during a storm. Encountering various nature spirits and animals, she eventually finds her way back with their help.

While Stream of Memory could afford to add some additional layers of story, agency or characterisation to its otherwise simple protagonist, the universal message of coexistence and care for our environment and each other remains crystal clear, brought out elegantly and memorably by its stellar design and performance elements. From the very beginning, audience members are already invited to be part of the performance, especially with floor seating that places us on various ‘islands’, while masked performers come out and sit with us as they ‘fish’. It’s a simple yet humourous pre-show element that endears us to this world, and certainly, engages us as we watch them cast their lines and reel in imaginary fish.

Papermoon Puppet Theatre prove themselves to be experts at their craft, and all our attention is always on the intricately crafted puppets (designed by Iwan Effendi) that dominate every scene. There is a fragility to the houses on stilts that make up the village, while the child puppets’ movements feel all-too-believable, hesitating as they prepare to jump platforms, or curiously turning their heads to observe their surroundings. Though their facial expressions never change, it is to the credit of the puppeteers that their voices and intonations capture each moment of surprise and wonder, shock or delight as they ‘sail’ across the river or watch birds flying across the stage.

Stream of Memory also knows how to amp up the tension as necessary – aided by Gilang Kusuma’s chalk-like multimedia projections and Yennu Ariendra’s sounds, the violent storm sees the platforms collapse, our protagonist flung into the air before the rapids consume her. Later on, dancers (choreographed by Dapheny Chen) bring out glowing, fish-like puppets, their movements frenetic and unpredictable and alive as they flit about, or wield spectral, papery creatures that threaten to suffocate any who get in their way. Elsewhere, the environmental message is also emphasised, when a baby elephant is caught in a man-made trap, crying out as the protagonist helps reunite it with the herd.

Most impressive of all however is the appearance of the river spirit Kali, the largest puppet of them all who dwarfs not only the other performers, but also towers over us when he appears. Heralded by James Tan’s lighting that casts an almost otherworldly illumination over the space, there is terror and wonder in witnessing such a giant in real life, a magnificent feat of engineering that still feels natural and real, where his appearance and existence alone is the pride and joy of the performance.

By the end of the final trek home, the reunion between friends feels earned, a triumphant scene at the end of a long journey that is celebrated with rousing music and provokes applause from the audience. With Stream of Memory, Papermoon has worked their magic once again, and delivers a joyous experience that strikes child-like wonder and awe in its audience, a prime example of puppet theatre done well.

Photo credit: Photos by Crispian Chan, Courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Stream of Memory plays from 13th to 18th December 2022 at the Singtel Waterfront Theatre. Tickets available here

Kali – A Stream of Memory Installation is a free exhibition outside the Singtel Waterfront Theatre that comprises a larger-than-life puppet, houses on stilts and miniature puppets created from clay, wood and rattan. The outdoor installation continues telling the tale of remembrance and reconnection central to the production Stream of Memory. The installation will be available from 5th to 18th December 2022.

In New Light – A Season of Commissions runs from 13th October to 31st December 2022 at the Esplanade. Full programme and more information available here

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