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Asian Theatre Journal 21.1 (2004) 109-111

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Puppet Theater In Contemporary Indonesia: New Approaches To Performance Events. Edited by Jan Mrázek. Michigan Papers on South and Southeast Asia, no. 50.Ann Arbor: Centers for South and Southeast Asian Studies, The University of Michigan, 2002. 392 pp. Cloth $70; paper $35
Mediums, Puppets, and the Human Actor In the Theatres of the East. By Poh Sim Plowright. Mellen Studies in Puppetry, vol. 4. Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen, 2002. 262 pp. $109.95

The aim of Puppet Theater in Contemporary Indonesia: New Approaches to Performance Events, according to editor Jan Mrázek, is to stimulate the reader to see and think about Indonesian shadow puppetry, or wayang, in new ways. Mrázek argues in his introduction that too many of the standard and authoritative works on wayang remain unquestioned and are simply recycled again by those who view wayang as a static study, object, or text. Rather than adhere to this limited, authoritative, self-referring body of "old scholarship," Mrázek has compiled a brilliant array of essays by leading scholars and performers that approach the subject from a variety of perspectives but with an underlying emphasis on the performative experience of wayang rather than on its conventional treatment as subsidiary to literature. Mrázek's clever introduction opens as a wayang play and is followed by twenty-four outstanding essays by Hendrik Kleinsmiede, A.L. Becker, Kathy Foley, Ward Keeler, Matthew Isaac Cohen, Andrew N.Weintraub, Richard Curtis, Suratno, René T.A. Lysloff, Hardja Susilo, Tony Day, W. Setiodarmoko, Judith Ecklund (with an addendum by Philip Yampolsky), Stephen C. Headley, M. Misbahul Amri,Victoria M. Clara van Groenendael, Brita Heimarck, Marc Benamou, Helen Pausacker, Sarah Weiss, Bernard Arps, Jan Mrázek, and Haryono Haryoguritno.

Although absent from this collection, the so-called old scholarship holds a central position—as a counterpoint for a new line of questioning. [End Page 109] Challenges to conventional approaches to wayang are addressed both directly and indirectly. Why, for example, has such a multisensory performance event been conventionally reduced to a form of literature? Should politics be so excessively prioritized in the historical development of wayang? How much power did the New Order government under President Soeharto really exert over the content of regional performances? To what degree have individual puppeteers influenced wayang as a whole and in its various regional forms? Is the characterization of "regional style" even legitimate, or has a wider hybridization evolved? What are the effects of modernization on ritual and sacred wayang? How and why do audiences watch wayang—and, in particular, how does this experience change when the performance is not experienced live, in person, but on television, cassette, or radio?

This focus on experiencing wayang as a whole performance event—through direct experience of the writer rather than "third- and fifth-hand interpretations" (p. 4)—is very welcome and, moreover, a key development in wayang scholarship. Mrázek argues that "watching wayang, experiencing wayang, talking to performers and audiences, being present at wayang performances" (p. 36) are essential for good scholarship. But Mrázek cautions that the goal of Puppet Theater is not to be comprehensive or encyclopedic—this is not possible with a living, changing performance genre (the essays focus on wayang performances and performers of the present day or recent past)—but to show that wayang can be described in an infinite number of ways and, therefore, there are an infinite number of "wayangs." Only if these perspectives are taken together can we begin to get a picture of what constitutes wayang.

This is where Puppet Theater meets performance studies. The challenge Mrázek confronts through this collection of essays is the distillation of a performance event into a written text while coming to terms with the fact that this is an unsatisfactory or even impossible task. A performance is a fleeting moment in time, unrepeatable, having never happened in quite the same way before, yet always referring to something...