Semar's Journey

A Gamelan Madu Sari presentation. At the Roundhouse Community Arts Centre on Friday, June 1. No remaining performances

At just under two intermission-free hours, Semar's Journey is not nearly as long as the all-night marathons that characterize Indonesia's outdoor puppet-theatre epics. But within the constraints of the black box that is the Roundhouse Community Arts Centre's performance centre, the musicians of Gamelan Madu Sari and their guests took us on a shadow-play voyage that was every bit as transporting–and in many regards, just as open-ended–as any wayang kulit performance you'd see in Bandung or Yogyakarta.

The first clue that Semar's Journey was not going to be the tightest event ever came when I bumped into computer artist Aleksandra Dulic in a nearby café. With 40 minutes till showtime, she was making revisions on her laptop with one hand while eating with the other–and this was before the second of two performances. Opening night, I'm told, had a number of glitches. None were visible on Day 2, but this production was still marked by an endearingly ramshackle feel, albeit one that was more informal than unprofessional.

Within that loose framework, this ambitious event addressed a number of themes: the traditional legend of the god Semar, exiled from heaven to aid humankind; the destructive influence of the mass media; the perils of consumerism; even the nature of existence itself. Naturally, some of the content was telegraphed, sometimes in a rather slapstick fashion–as when the puppet figures of Semar and Albert Einstein discuss cosmology in an open boat. ("So you made time?" the physicist asks, to which Semar replies, "Well, I was on the committee”¦") But between Eko Purnomo's playful puppets–some of them dating back to the 19th century–and Dulic's ever-morphing projected images of clouds, water, flora, and fauna, there was always something to watch, and much to listen to as well.

One of the remarkable things about the gamelan scene in Vancouver is that many of our most accomplished composers have become fascinated with Indonesian percussion music. Semar's Journey included effective pieces from Madu Sari members who have been acclaimed in other idioms: especially memorable were Andrew Czink's electronically augmented prologue, "Imminence", and Kenneth Newby's dreamy, minimalistic "Evidence/Erasure". Ben Rogalsky's "From Heaven to Earth" was a pleasing detour into mandolin-driven folk-rock made appropriately heavenly by the addition of the ensemble's metallophones, while Michael O'Neill's "The Cave", "Leaving the Cave", and "Semar Sails" taxed the musicians' virtuosity with speedy hocketing and elaborate time signatures.

Otherwise, much of the production's success was due to Sutrisno Hartana. As dalang , or master of ceremonies, he was required to act, sing, compose tunes, provide sound effects, and chivvy the show along, all of which he accomplished with grace and good humour. But wayang kulit is not so much about stars as it is about community. A total of 23 musicians, singers, writers, and technicians contributed to Semar's Journey , and they can all be proud of what they accomplished.