FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Cast of Characters

by Janice Hecht

Feb 24, 2020

It took some time, but we finally got around to unpacking decorative items that have been in storage since our move nearly three years ago. What a joy to get artwork up on the walls … and once again be surrounded by our favorite things that tell the stories of our travels.

Several Alexandre Minguet prints we bought at the Minguet Art Gallery in St.-Martin depict the brilliant colors and joie de vivre of the Caribbean. We spent hours at the gallery, now run by his daughter, Catherine, who spoke with us about her father’s art. Another print we bought on a cruise to Bermuda reminds me of a wildly windy day on that island, while hand-blown glass paperweights capture the action of the waves. At Arawak Pottery in St. Maarten (no longer in business), we found our “man in the moon” sculpture — a large pottery crescent moon with a face, which actually serves as an oversized incense burner.

And then there are the puppets, a set of characters in themselves.

We collected several puppets on trips to the Caribbean and, oddly enough, Martha’s Vineyard. These modern-day Javanese wayang golek were once used in puppet theater in Indonesia. Once the puppets become too worn, they make their way into the marketplace. Wayang golek (meaning “rod puppets”) are three-dimensional carved wooden puppets, a separate style from the wayang kulit leather shadow puppets of the same region.

The ancient form of wayang storytelling originated on the Indonesian island of Java, where it has flourished for 10 centuries. Today it is also performed on other islands, such as Sumatra. The puppet master, or dalang, and his troupe of puppeteers perform traditional Javanese tales and plays that combine Hindu stories with Buddhist and Muslim philosophies and Javanese folklore. Usually there is a struggle of good versus evil. Traditional music, often a gamelan percussion orchestra, accompanies the performances.

What I find fascinating about these puppets is their personalities. While each one is unique, the sculpted wooden heads and costumes represent stylized character types as well as specific mythic characters. Refined characters — the heroes and heroines — usually have white faces, bowed heads and small downcast eyes. In performances, they move in slow, gliding motions and speak softly with melodious voices. Semi-refined characters have white or pink faces with slightly more upright heads and eyes that gaze forward. Strong characters have deep pink or darker-colored faces and bulging eyes. They speak with deep gravelly voices and hold their heads high. These are the “worker bees” — they fight battles, build bridges and clear forests. Then there are the antagonists: The emotionally uncontrolled characters are troublemakers with red or black faces, bulging eyes, open mouths with visible fangs or teeth and larger bodies. They speak in piercing voices. Another set of about 15 individual characters are primarily jesters. These punokawan figures known as servant-clowns inject humor into the stories along with philosophical interludes that highlight the message of each performance.

In 2008 UNESCO inscribed wayang puppet theater on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

As with so many cultural traditions that intersect with the modern world, wayang puppet theater remains active today but must compete with more contemporary forms of entertainment like television, videos and karaoke. For that reason today’s puppet plays often emphasize the comic elements of the stories and sometimes modernize characters into action heroes. The traditional music is often replaced with pop tunes. And with tourism increasing to Indonesia, puppets are now being produced specifically to sell to tourists.

— Jan Hecht, senior editor


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