- The Shadow Puppet Theatre of Malaysia: A Study of Wayang Kulit with Performance Scripts and Puppet Designs
Beth Osnes's The Shadow Puppet Theatre of Malaysia provides a detailed introduction to this lively, lesser-known genre of puppet performance. She draws from two decades of researching and teaching this form to provide descriptions of its practice in performance, scholarly insight into its cultural and social context, translations of performance scripts, and instructions for would-be puppeteers to create their own shadow screen and stage a performance. She frames these sections with a desire to create an entry point into a greater understanding of Malaysia and Southeast Asia. The strength of this work is that she treats Malaysian wayang kulit, or shadow puppetry, as a living tradition and includes information about the artists who served as her primary teachers and informants, accounts of teaching and performing Malaysian wayang kulit in the United States, and an afterword that accounts for how [End Page 327] the performance form and the culture around it has changed since her first visit to Malaysia.
The introduction opens with a description of a performance and recounts how Osnes first became interested in the Malaysian version of wayang kulit. Even though shadow puppetry exists throughout Southeast Asia, the forms in Indonesia, especially Java and Bali, have received the most attention from scholars and artists. Osnes compares the Malaysian version to the Javanese and describes the puppets as rougher and the performance as more immediate, which allows "it to anticipate and respond in lively fashion to changes in the audience's expectations" (p. 7). Osnes's research focuses on Kelantan in Malaysia because this is where shadow theatre is found.
The first chapter is possibly the most ambitious, and sometimes the least successful of the book. In it Osnes attempts to situate Malaysian wayang kulit within the other traditions of shadow puppetry found around Southeast Asia. Osnes describes both the differences and commonalities between various forms and cultures, and also introduces some of the basic features of the genre, such as the styles of the puppets, the puppet master, music, and the mystical aspects of the performance. Although I applaud her effort and agree that it is important to consider traditional performing arts not only within their discrete regions and culture but also within the whole of Southeast Asia, the attempt is not as complete or detailed as one might wish. Through a reliance on generalizations, Osnes's descriptions gloss over the nuances of the different genres. I think, however, that this section well demonstrates the complexity of performances and cultures in Southeast Asia and that there is a need for more detailed comparative analysis than is possible here. The strength of this chapter is that it serves as an excellent starting point for inspiring curiosity to know more. Osnes supplements this section with a very good appendix of books and other resources that are readily available.
The next two chapters concentrate on the stories and performance practices of Malaysian wayang kulit in particular. Osnes focuses on the stories first, rather than the performance practices, because her research revealed that stories were the most important element of a performance rather than the spectacle of the puppets. As in many theatrical forms in Southeast Asia, the Ramayana and Mahabharata are two key sources for stories. The book contains summaries (by Lisa Hall and Todd J. Coulter) of these complicated and very long myths that would be very useful to anyone trying to understand Asian culture and performance. The Panji Tales are a third important story source, and Osnes provides an excellent summery by Jennifer E. Popple. The retellings are lively, engaging, and clear.
The third chapter opens with the statement, "The best way to introduce the Malaysian shadow puppet theatre as distinguished from other forms throughout Southeast Asia is to examine the culture and nation from which it originated" (p. 51). Osnes provides insight into the role that wayang kulit plays in a national context that both...