Change begins with small acts. The title of my blog is taken from Paul Gilroy's powerful slim volume packing a resounding counter-cultural critical punch.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari : A Review

by Carmen Nge

In June 1973, Krishen Jit, writing as Utih in his regular newspaper column, eulogized Awang Lah bin Pandak, the most renown Kelantanese dalang at the time and a masterful exponent of Wayang Siam. Commenting on Awang Lah’s demise, Krishen concluded that “the future of wayang is uncertain. […] Wayang will change, as it must.”

More than 20 years later, on a rainy night in the Central Market Annexe last month, a youth ensemble of three performers proved Krishen right. Huddled on the wooden floor, the audience was treated to drama wayang—theatre about wayang kulit—a new twist on an old story with a long history.

Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari is a tribute to two famous rival dalangs: the late Dollah Baju Merah and Hamzah Awang Mat. The performance is an intersection of two stories, different in tone and timbre; the first is a tale of the two master puppeteers and the second is the story of Betara Kala, a mythical, human flesh-eating giant who is captivated by wayang kulit.

Both stories are performed by a tripartite of actors: Fahmi Fadzil, Lim Chung Wei and Wong Taysy. The text for the first story is culled from interviews and newspaper articles with the two dalangs, in an attempt to bestow an aura of authenticity to their depictions. Additionally, this move to breathe performative life into our archived past appears to be a strategy favoured by Mark Teh, director of Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari.

But if the intention of the performance was to explore the rivalry between the two dalangs, then it failed. What emerged instead was a strange symbiosis between the two figures—like two sides of a coin, they complemented each other. Hamzah was the dalang who took his skills to the city, to teach and to survive. Dollah, the irreverent one, worked as a menial labourer and later, rubber tapper, when the PAS-led Kelantan government banned wayang kulit in 1990. Both were unwilling to give up what they loved but the former compromised whereas the latter did not.

Throughout Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari, the uncompromising figure of Dollah clearly dominated. Towards the tail-end of the performance, Fahmi Fadzil took on the persona of Dollah who pontificated about PAS, wayang and his ideals. This was a well-paced segment, quiet in its execution and shot through with a poignant sense of melancholy. By reining in his energy, Fahmi embodied an austerity so lucid it revealed the tensions simmering deep below the surface.

But these moments of intense reserve were few and far between. Most of the performance played up a madcap ebullience, replete with the booming voice of Betara Kala and the comedic encounter between the giant and the dalang whom teaches him about wayang kulit. Taysy and Chung Wei moved seamlessly together in most of their scenes, complementing their strengths and, together with Fahmi, formed a well-constructed triangulation of energies.

A performance about wayang kulit, however, would be incomplete without shadow play, but instead of traditional kulit figures taken from epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata, shadows of texts and symbols danced on the white walls behind the performers. Using an overhead projector—a clever trick first used during an earlier play, Baling Membaling, also directed by Mark Teh—graphic artist and designer Fahmi Reza deftly manipulated two columns of words, juxtaposing random ideas to form new compound meanings. Politik:jahat. Melayu:Islam. Halal:haram. Duduk:diam. These potent shadows were silent yet effectively ominous, casting new layers of interpretation in their semiotic subtext.

This intentional juxtaposition of words, and of text and performance, is parallel to the ensuing competition between two artistic mediums: wayang kulit and wayang gambar (film). In this battle sequence, which mimics video games, the twin force of Chung Wei and Taysy (representing film), is pitted against Fahmi Fadzil (representing wayang kulit). In the hilarious and kinetic duel, the two sides argue the relative merits of their medium—comparing audience size and the amount of sponsorship received, among others—but in the end, no winner emerges.

Critics may wonder as to this dénouement; hasn’t film won the consumer battle hands down? But, if Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari is any indication of wayang kulit’s resilience and propensity to evolve and adapt to constricting circumstances—whether political, economic or artistic—it would premature to write off an art form that refuses to be cowed or contained.

This review was published in Off The Edge magazine August 2007 issue.