Back Stage Pass

A new ShadowLight production is always reason to celebrate, so Saturday found me headed to Yerba Buena Gardens’ esplanade to catch The Marriage Contest for Princess Tatewati.
On the way, I spied a hijacked Clear Channel billboard with some interesting faces and stopped to snap a few pics.
Holding the event outdoors as part of Yerba Buena Gardens Festival series allowed ShadowLight to reach a larger audience than usual. When asked how many were attending a SL show for the first time, the majority of attendees raised their hands.
The night’s performance was a little different from the usual SL fare. Typically, the company incorporates both the new and the old in their work. Traditional techniques are infused with innovation. They’ve created adaptations with unusual sources (Joseph Moncure March’s flapper era poem The Wild Party) as well as produced works from completely original scripts (2002’s 7 Visions).

The Marriage Contest however was an attempt to give Western audiences a taste of Balinese shadow puppet theater (wayang kulit) in its traditional form. Hence, the evening began as is customary with a performance on instruments called gender wayang.
For a performance, either a pair of the instruments are employed or four at once. The musicians play the bronze keys on top like a xylophone, the sound reverberating in the air through the bamboo resonators below the keys. Stretched out on the grass, we waited for darkness to fall (and the heat to go down) to the sound of the music.
One of the particular joys of a SL production is the opportunity to see the performers in action. When I attended Monkey King at Spider Cave at SOMArts back in 2007, you had two options: a ticket for the usual bleacher seats in the house of the theater or seated behind the scrim. Either way, you couldn’t go wrong.

For The Marriage Contest, the audience was actually invited to experience it both ways. Spectators could wander freely behind the screen at any point during the show.
Knowing capturing shadow puppet images on screen was a dubious prospect, especially with my puny SX100 with its interminable shutter speed, I decided to spend most of the time back stage.
One modern concession that was made to the night’s wayang (aside from the sound system) was the employment of an electric lamp in lieu of a damar (oil lamp).
It burned with an acetylene brightness as SL Artistic Director and tonight’s shadow master dalang Larry Reed deftly employed the figures.
Here you can see how the dalang has set up for the performance. To his left and right the puppets are stacked like playing cards (but vertically), so that he doesn’t have to fumble through them while performing, looking for the character he needs.
Surprisingly, despite the fact that the images the audience sees are in black in white, the puppets themselves are vibrantly painted.
Perhaps the fact that, as the show notes reveal, “a Balinese shadow play is used to complete a religious ceremony” as well as employed for entertainment that accounts for the beauty of the figures.
The Marriage Contest of poor Princess Tatewati is between two kings, one human, one a demon, meaning the dalang can have a lot of fun with the voices of the more ogreish characters.
Interestingly, while the puppets are arranged to either side of the dalang for ease of use, they are demarcated along lines of good and evil. Good are on the right (sorry Lefties).
Eventually good and evil begin to pile up…
…meaning the show is nearing its end.
The lights go up, so it’s okay to use a flash again.
The electric lamp revealed looks like a dad’s Christmas nightmare with its tangle of wires and bulbs.
A good look at the gender wayang instruments (sans presumably exhausted musicians).
Another view.

Next up for ShadowLight is Ghosts of the River, which I’m particularly excited to see since it will premiere at the Brava Theater on 24 St., just a few blocks from my apartment. Next Saturday, the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival continues with The Sephardic Music Experience. Cool night on the grassy esplanade after a hot day = bliss.


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