The Bates College Gamelan Mawar Mekar, a four-year-old orchestra specializing in music from the Indonesian island of Java, and Bates's visiting Fulbright scholar Joko Susilo, a master puppeteer, will present the shadow puppet play The Abduction of Sinta tonight at 7:00 p.m. in Kresge Auditorium.
Sinta is based on the Ramayana, the Hindu epic, but according to Rose Pruiksma, a drummer in the orchestra, American audiences can liken the viewing experience to something more familiar.
"It's like Star Wars. People know these stories. They find different characters to identify with," she said. Just as some Americans see a glimmer of Obi-Wan in every aged, charismatic figure they meet, so are the characters of the Ramayana embedded in Indonesian popular culture. And when the shadow puppetry, or wayang kulit, is shown in Indonesia, Pruiksma said it lasts nearly as long as all George Lucas's Episodes put together, sometimes all night.
The version Bowdoin will see, at two and a half hours long, will be significantly shorter, but it will still encourage audience participation, a key component of the wayang kulit when it's performed in Java.
"Unlike many theater performances, the wayang kulit is approached as a community event. It isn't just [that] you sit in the dark quietly and watch this thing unfold in front of you," said Adjunct Lecturer in Theater Libby Marcus, who first approached the Department to play host to Sinta after traveling to Bates frequently last year to watch rehearsals.
"In the actual performances in Java, there would be people sitting in front of the shadow screen [and] behind the shadow screen. People can talk during it," she said.
Susilo, an eighth generation shadow puppeteer who is a lecturer in the Department of Music at New Zealand's University of Otago, knows the basic story so well that he can improvise during the show and engage with the audience.
"While he's right in the middle of the story that he's telling, he's also always conscious of the people around him, and occasionally throws things out to the audience," Marcus said.
Susilo will have a lot to think about while onstage: he not only plays music with the orchestra, but also moves the dozens of puppets entirely himself against the backlit cloth screen, even using his feet to manipulate the carved and painted characters. Susilo also sings, makes sound effects with his feet, and speaks the characters' voices.
The accompanying music will be created by gongs, drums, xylophones, bamboo flutes and string instruments.
"The music is very resonant, and it's completely integrated into what you see," said Pruiksma, who said she has a transcendental experience when she plays with the gamelan orchestra. "It's like time stops, you go into another space. I lose track of time passing."
Perhaps this unfamiliar form will have a similar effect on the Bowdoin audience.
"When are people going to have an opportunity in Midcoast Maine to partake in such a interesting artist and his work? It's just too exciting to pass up," Marcus said.
Tickets to The Abduction of Sinta, to be performed at 7:00 p.m. in Kresge Auditorium on Sunday, are free and available at the Smith Union Info Desk by calling 207-725-3375, or at the door.