to choose or not to choose

bryoni trezise on sidetrack’s indonesian collaboration

 Maryam Supraba, Monica Wulff and Gusjur Mahesa, The Tangled Garden

Maryam Supraba, Monica Wulff and Gusjur Mahesa, The Tangled Garden

Maryam Supraba, Monica Wulff and Gusjur Mahesa, The Tangled Garden

IN LUSH, ALMOST DAMP SURROUNDS, PERFORMERS CAMP BENEATH BANANA PALMS AND DELICATE BAMBOO PROJECTIONS. THEY HOLD COLOURFUL MONKEY-FACED FANS, COYLY PEEPING AT THE AUDIENCE FROM BEHIND BOLDLY PAINTED BABOON EYES. AS GAMELAN RHYTHMS PATTER INTO THE MIX—A DRUMMER SLYLY TAPPING IN THE DEPTHS OF THE STAGE—THE INTIMACY OF THE SIDETRACK PERFORMANCE SPACE SETTLES US INTO A FEELING OF TROPICAL OTHERNESS. WE ARE DISTINCTLY CAUGHT IN THE EXOTICS OF ELSEWHERE.

Don Mamouney’s script for The Tangled Garden restages the theme of encounter between east and west. In an exchange between traditional Indonesian and contemporary theatre work the show has toured Bandung, Jakarta and Darwin. Presented with the rich but awkward resonance of the intercultural moment, the audience is at the centre of this meeting, invited to draw in the steamy scent of greenery known mainly to a different climate. Language is strange, truncated or sometimes altogether untranslated. We are given grabs of what we are accustomed to amidst much that we are not. In this, we function as witness to, and dynamic part of, the east-west meeting itself.

The cross-cultural theme is realised in the fable-like fates of two childhood friends who meet as adults and love the same enchanting woman, Dewi (Maryam Supraba). Ariel (Alex Blias) holds all the rich clichés of western bookish education and worldly knowing, while his counterpart, Ujang (Dedi Warsana) is plainly strong in body, borne of the earth. The premise of the plot is simple—two brothers fight it out, battling their own inner demons, for a woman who cannot choose between them.

The narrative treats this premise with a degree of confusing complexity. We witness the men sacrifice their love of each other for Dewi, they ask the gods to intervene, but then Dewi overrides the decision of the gods and makes her own choice, only to re-decide again later. The men die in a moment of mutual suicide, swap heads upon rebirth, and seem to resolve nothing but the continued itch for Dewi’s beauty and the promise of some good sex to boot.

As the story increasingly entangles itself, nothing much eventuates out of a question that perhaps hasn’t been asked in quite the right way. For a start, the men’s desire is heartbreakingly simple, as is Dewi’s irritatingly undecided response to their continued adulations. Perhaps intended to signify an ultimate philosophical quandary, her flitting between partners strangely reads as more of a precocious yuppy panic. The ‘west’ of intercultural surely erupts in unintended ways here. Why do we care who she chooses? Is the textual premise actually about choice at all?

As a metaphor, the Tangled Garden story replays the central conceit of the production, which is suitably more invested in the dramatic form and process demanded of cross-cultural practice than its narrative outcome. A collaboration between Sydney’s Sidetrack Performance Group and Komunitas CCL in Bandang, Indonesia, the work was produced during four months of exchange, training and dialogue between two theatres steeped in important histories of collaboration and transformational community-building.

The function of the work on this level is clear. Carlos Gomes (direction) and Iman Soleh (movement) have embedded the form with the tension and strength brought to such exchange. The ensemble are well-versed in a physical vocabulary of Javanese dance coupled with an amusing pantomimic mode. Song, image and exquisite Cirebonese mask work illuminate the potential for deep dialogue within cross-cultural practice. Tangled Garden comes alive when body and sound animate the kinds of ideas that text may not. In these moments, chorus performers enact the burlesque hilarity of a burning groin; a humanoid rooster crows the dawning of the day; a guru is less interested in enlightenment than in a crude bit on the side.

Monica Wulff as the goddess Sri Pohaci strikes an interesting presence with a continued watchful eye that transforms into action with a thunderous masked dance sequence, beckoning mere mortals back to order and life. Wulff’s performance is startling partly for its latency: we barely see her move throughout the work, and then suddenly, scatty commedia are focalised with the rhythmic and angular precision of her finely-tuned technique.

With such potential in performers and the richness engendered by the meeting of two different theatrical worlds, The Tangled Garden offers a fusion of east and west in process in ways that its story does not. In practice, there’s no need to choose, but a plenitude available for all.

Sidetrack, The Tangled Garden, writer Don Mamouney, design, direction Carlos Gomes, performers Alex Blias, Gusjur Mahesa, Maryam Supraba, Dedi Warsana, Monica Wulff, movement Iman Soleh, sound Yadi Mulyadi, video Assad Abdi, lighting Yadi Mulyadi, Adji Sangiadji; Sidetrack Theatre, Sydney, Aug 22-Sept 9

RealTime issue #81 Oct-Nov 2007 pg. 38

© Bryoni Trezise; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2007