Two and a half months of labor culminated in the world premiere of a show in the basement of the Paul Creative Arts Center at the University of New Hampshire.
The production was a life-size puppet show called Sematakaki. It was created by artists in residence Iwan Effendi and Ria Sulistyani to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Indonesian genocide of 1965 under the dictator president Sukarno.
Effendi and Sulistyani run Papermoon Puppet Theatre, a company based in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. They have presented work all over the world. The goal of the company was to have a creative vehicle for “exploring identity and society” according to the Sematakaki program.
Efffendi built the puppets and the set and masks, and Sulistyani wrote the script, directed and designed the costumes.
The premise of the story is told with a minimum of dialogue. There is only one spoken part, and the rest is done out in dance and by puppetry. The liner notes offer this poem as a synopsis of the play.
“People with red color on their feet,
Always bring bad luck…
People with red color on their feet,
Need to be destroyed…
People with red color on their feet,
Were cursed to die.”
This wicked mantra forms the premise of the story. A girl named Tanamera in an imaginary village has red feet, and becomes the subject of treatment as described above. Characters are puppets, or people in large, expressive masks. There is only one moment of dialogue, when the leader of the village sums up the village’s history. In short, the blame for a famine was placed on people with red feet, and story’s parallel to genocide begins.
Emma Perkins, the stage manager for the show, discussed what it meant to be part of a team responsible for such an intricate production:
The show ran from Dec. 2 through 6. On Dec. 6, the cast gathered backstage of the Hennessy theatre half an hour before run time for some pre-show rituals.
These warm-ups primarily involved movement. The puppets are about half as tall as the puppeteers, so in order to make them walk on the ground, the actors must walk forwards in a squatting position. The actors wore grey sweatpants tucked into grey or brown wool socks, grey beanie caps. In this dress, the stretching made the troupe look like a baseball team limbering up before a game. Perkins belted out the routine.
“Don’t trip over the floor lamps,” the light designer Quenton Glennon reminded the cast.
“Last show,” Perkins said. “Savor the squat.”
The stretching is necessary to prevent injuries in such a physical show. But such a movement-drive performance can present challenges beyond injury. Sarah Hurley, the puppeteer for the head and right hand of Runduma, a puppet character in the show, discussed some of the challenges she encountered as an actress.
The actors stretched by pulling their knees against their chests, and followed the stretch with increasingly deep squats. The cast of eleven packed the narrow room backstage making it impassable as the actors shuffled around each other in a ring while in a deep squat position. They took a break to shake out their legs, and hear a word from Sulistyani about the last show.
“Form the magic circle,” Sulistyani said. The cast and crew gathered on the floor, and joined hands.
“Thank you,” she said. “It’s been wonderful working with all of you.”
“This is the last performance,” she said. “Give all. Everything you have.”
The lights went down for the show, and came up on a stage scattered with dead autumn leaves. There were looming, sharp black silhouettes towards the back of the stage, between which creeping vines, lit a swampy green hanged. The show began with a playing of yellow lights through the slats of two sparse benches with supports like prison bars. There were scattered webs and shafts of light, then a scampering of red feet, a blood-curdling scream, and darkness.
The lights came up to music composed of deep ringing gongs, tinkling chimes, and swooshing, atmospheric tones.
While video was not allowed, Elizabeth Girard (left in video) and Gwen Higgins (right) provided a demonstration of the puppet’s motions. Part of the theme music to the performance is edited beneath the video to provide a sense of the atmosphere of the performance.
The crowd of about 40 people were gathered around the T-shaped stage. The runtime was about 1 hour. The cast and crew said goodbye to Effendi and Sulistyana, and presented them with a signed photograph of themselves to remember the performance at its final run.
Follow the show from its early stages to the closing bow on this Storify.