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  • The Shadow Puppet Theatre of Malaysia: A Study of Wayang Kulit with Performance Scripts and Puppet Designs by Beth Osnes
  • Lisa Morse
The Shadow Puppet Theatre of Malaysia: A Study of Wayang Kulit with Performance Scripts and Puppet Designs. By Beth Osnes. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010; pp. 204.

In The Shadow Puppet Theatre of Malaysia: A Study of Wayang Kulit with Performance Scripts and Puppet Designs, Beth Osnes shares her personal journey and scholarly research regarding the world of shadow play in Malaysia. With over twenty years of research and performance experience, Osnes presents not only the insight given by Dalang Hamzah Awang Hamat, with whom she studied as a Fulbright scholar in Kelantan, Malaysia, but also her own lessons learned as a Western scholar seeking an understanding of the art form. More than an autobiographical journey, Osnes’s book expands upon the scholarship of Dato’ Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof, whose 1997 book The Malay Shadow Play: An Introduction briefly describes shadow play style, equipment, repertoire, operation, religion, symbolism, and performance in a brief sixty-six-page text. In a far more detailed account, Osnes situates Malaysian puppet theatre within the landscape of shadow puppet theatre forms. The first part of the book surveys performance and literary influences from Southeast Asia, China, and India and their correspondences with the Malaysian shadow puppet form. The central chapter focuses on Malaysian shadow puppet theatre and more specifically the rituals and performance conventions associated with Wayang Siam. The final section of the book details the characters, scripts, and performance techniques for puppeteers, educators, and students of all ages.

Chapter 1 presents Southeast Asian shadow puppetry as a multifaceted tradition meant for general audiences that provides “entertainment, healing, balance, spiritual refinement, the appeasement of spirits, and cultural education” (13). Common among shadow puppet performances, Osnes notes, is the use of a muslin screen, a single light source, and, most often, a single puppeteer, who through the manipulation of voice and movement brings the puppet figure to life. From this introduction, Osnes follows with a detailed discussion of the puppet objects used in Javanese Wayang Kulit, the presumed source for all forms of shadow puppetry in Southeast Asia. Here, Osnes relates materials, methods of construction, and design attributes to the figurative meanings they generate. She then recounts the puppet master’s responsibilities as a mediator between the puppet object and the spirit world, discussing how the cyclical rhythms of the gamelan orchestra and the oblique shadow figures create for the audience a “warped” sense of time and place in a performance that occurs from sundown to sunup. This highly refined form of shadow puppet theatre is “uniquely effective,” Osnes observes, “for making the divine present in this material world” (19). The chapter concludes with a discussion concerning the development of shadow puppet theatre throughout Southeast Asia. Osnes traces Javanese puppet tradition as it progressed to Bali, Cambodia, Thailand, and then Malaysia as each culture adopted and adapted its form.

Chapter 2 details the story repertoire of Malaysian shadow puppet theatre, providing engaging and concise synopses of the Cerita Mahraja Wana, Ramayana, Mahabharata, and The Panji Tales by Osnes and contributors Lisa Hall, Todd Coulter, and Jennifer Popple. Readers will find these synopses helpful in charting the exploits of a wide range of characters within each story, while gaining appreciation for the “romance, epic battle scenes, action packed plot, unforgettable characters, and spiritual depth” in each story (32). Cerita Mahraja Wana, the Malay folk version of the Ramayana, for example, differs from the original Indian epic by featuring popular Malay clown characters in new situations.

Chapter 3 identifies four types of shadow puppetry associated with various regions in Malaysia: Wayang Gedek of the Kedah region that mixes Thai and Malay languages; Wayang Kulit Purwa performed [End Page 137] in West Johor and Selangor by immigrants from Java who speak in old Javanese; Wayang Kulit Melayu (also called Wayang Jawa) performed along the Thai–Malaysian border, with roots in Javanese shadow puppetry; and Wayang Siam (also called Wayang Kulit Kelantan) from the regions bordering Thailand and Malaysia. Osnes discusses this last form in extensive detail, noting Thai design influences like upturned hands, tall headdresses, and stories...


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