Dark life: A puppet looks at its house marked with a red triangle. The scene is part of Papermoon puppet theater’s Mwathirika which is inspired by the failed coup blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party on Sept. 30, 1965. JP/Sri Wahyuni The harmonious life of two neighboring families, the Babas and the Hakis, suddenly plunges into disaster when a group of armed people arrest Baba just because someone recklessly painted a red triangle on his house and because of a red whistle he owned.
Due to the arrest, Baba’s little daughter Tupu and her teenage brother Moyo were forced to live in great hardship as their father’s whereabouts and fate were unknown.
At the same time, Haki stopped his little daughter Lacuna, who was wheelchair-bound, from playing with Tupu because of the red whistle, which was also the reason that Moyo, Tupu and Lacuna ultimately lost their lives with no clear explanation.
That is the story that Papermoon puppet theater’s Mwathirika related through its three days of performances last week at the auditorium of the French Cultural Center (CCF) Yogyakarta.
“We are inspired by the true story behind the dark chapter of Indonesian history back in 1965,” said the performance’s conceptor and co-artistic director Maria Tri Sulistyani, referring to events resulting from the failed coup blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party on Sept. 30, 1965.
A collaborative creative process between her and the performance’s co-artistic director Iwan Effendi, she said the story of Mwathirika was based on the personal experiences of people in the aftermath of the tragedy.
“Unlike historical facts that work more with figures and numbers, this performance tries to present the history of feelings: the feeling of losing something and the feeling of causing something to be lost,” Iwan said.
It was for this reason that a non-verbal performance was chosen to relate the story using Japanese bunraku and kuruma ningyo puppets on a stage with a fairy-tale like setting.
The way the players manipulated the puppets was more like nannies taking care of toddlers who are learning to walk, creating an intimacy between both of them. The puppets were about the same size as a toddler.
The players sometimes held the puppet very close in front of them while they were sitting and moving according to the script on a small wheeled wooden box. At another time, two players jointly walked a puppet, with one holding its hands while the other moved its feet. They sometimes even used their own hands as those of the puppets.
Maria said the puppets and the technique were chosen because of the intimacy aspect. The technique was considered the most suitable to strengthen the emotional aspect of the story.
“This also accounts for the choice of a small stage and small puppets, to successfully convey the feeling,” Maria said.
Apart from presenting the five puppet characters in the story, there were also seven smaller puppets, mostly of clown characters, and a number of human players wearing masks playing the roles of armed security personnel.
The stage was divided into front and back parts. A transparent white curtain separated the two parts, creating two different perspectives of the main characters’ small world and that of the larger society, of the micro and the macro, of the grass roots and the elite.
Both Maria and Iwan believed that the wordless gestures of the puppets were strong enough to deliver the message.
They wanted to show the powerful effect of movements.
Throughout the one-hour performance, the characters in the play said almost nothing except other characters’ names.
“Movement is the first language of a human being. With fewer words, sometimes we can better communicate things,” said Maria.
The music, which was sometimes like that from a toy music box, further brought the audience to a deeper understanding of the tragic story.
One of the five recipients of the 2010-2011 empowering woman artists’ grants from Kelola for arts and culture, Maria said the idea of bringing the story to the stage had emerged a year or so ago.
The creative process, however, started only some five months ago when she won the grant to produce two works in two years from Kelola.
She said that apart from reading historical textbooks and watching films on the Sept. 30, 1965 tragedy, she also collected information from members of her extended family, including grandparents, uncles and other people involved in her daily life.
From this she collected personal experiences and other historical facts that she would not find in
“The scene of Moyo hunting for frogs to feed his sister, for instance, is the real experience of an uncle who had to earn money to support his family when he was still a teenager following the arrest of his father,” Maria said.
“This is basically a true story that happened in our country,” she added.
The word mwathirika, which means victim in the East African Swahili language, according to Maria, was used mostly because it sounded strange to the ears of an Indonesian audience and therefore would not block their imagination while enjoying the performance.
That way she expected to create curiosity among the audience.
In principle, the play wanted to show something that the audience was familiar with but by using a
“This is the way that we, the generation of the 1990s, read the other side of an event in our country, a dark chapter in Indonesian history,” said Maria, who is the founder of the Papermoon puppet theater.
Established in 2006 mainly to stage puppet performances for children in villages, Papermoon has now switched to target a wider audience.
“We try to show that puppets are not just for children. They are also good to talk about anything to all people of different walks of life,” Maria said.