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Theatre: What? Peperangan Bintang? What?

By Robert W. Bethune
ART TIMES online August 2014

One of the assemblages of detritus that remains in the back of my mind, down toward the lower levels of the brain, from my days four decades ago studying Asian theater for my doctorate, is that there is such a thing as Malaysian shadow puppetry. Like its siblings and cousins in other parts of Southeast Asia, it tells the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the Hindu epics probably best known on this side of the intervening oceans as the stories about Krishna and such.

It’s a traditional art form, centuries old, which like so many traditional art forms in all parts of the world is struggling to draw an audience. With cinema, television, and web-connected screens of many sorts giving these forms stiff competition, it’s a case of adapt or die.

Adaptation can be summarized, at least in some cases, by the old proverb, “If you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em.” So it is with Tintoy Chuo, a Malaysian playwright, and Muhammad Dain bin Othman, a Malaysian puppeteer, and their work-in-progress, “Peperangan Bintang.”

Which translates as – the envelope please ….

“Star Wars.”

You’ve got it. Han, Luke, Leia, the whole gang, up there on the shadowy screen.

The first thought has got to be, “Oh, no.” Deculturation, cultural globalization, Rama, Sita and Arjuna trading in traditional dress for T-shirts and blue jeans, the nightmare goes on and on.

The second thought might be, “Well…. If they have to….” And pretty much, they do. There’s only two kinds of art that don’t change, that don’t respond to the cultural world they find themselves in: the ones that are dying and the ones that are already dead.

The third thought is this: Yes, an art form can try to survive by changing. But change does not come with guarantees. It can be a lifesaver, or the last nail in a coffin. You roll the dice and you count the spots. Good luck to the Malaysian puppeteers! Off they march towards long, long ago and far, far away!

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