Saturday, January 17, 2009

When a clown becomes a king

Matheos V. Messakh , The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Sat, 01/17/2009 2:32 PM | Entertainment

Two words can perfectly sum up this play: triumphantly funny.

Republik Petruk (Petruk’s Republic) is more topical than the first two installments in Teater Koma’s Republik trilogy; it is also brimming with allusions, many of which could go over several viewers’ heads.

The satirical humor flashes and burns, pulling in even in the most desperate among us. The subtle jibes may prove a little confusing but one thing is certain – it is never dull. Republik Petruk, the work of rarely disappointing Nano Riantiarno, is a victory of drama over matter.

Once more playwright and director Nano Riantiarno has delivered a clever political satire.

The difference between political satire and protest, or political dissent, is that satire does not necessarily carry an agenda nor seek to influence the political process.

While the audience may well come away with ideas of political change running through their minds, the first task of the satire is to entertain. By its very nature, satire rarely offers a constructive view of what could be.

Republik Petruk, which is staged at Taman Ismail Marzuki arts center in Central Jakarta until Jan. 25, takes a gleeful look at Indonesia’s political eforms, portraying one after another the failures that grew out of the mischief of the nation’s political leaders.

The story begins when Mustakaweni (Cornelia Agatha) steals the Kalimasada amulet, the Pandawa family’s precious treasure, by disguising herself as Gatotkaca. Srikandi (Herlina Syarifudin), the woman warrior, tries but fails to recover the Kalimasada. Then who should come along but a young prince, Priambada (Rangga Riantiarno), who is looking for his father Arjuna.
Srikandi is willing to help Priambada find his father as long as the young prince reclaims the Kalimasada. Priambada accepts the deal.

A classic combat turns into a war between the sexes when Priambada encounters Mustakaweni in a battle. They fall for each other right off but both pretend to care more about winning the fight. Mustakaweni ends up allowing Priambada to reclaim the amulet.

The tragedy begins when Priambada hands over the amulet to Petruk (Budi Ros), one of the clowning characters and the Pandawa family’s royal servant. With the amulet in his hand, Petruk is tempted by the gods Kaladurgi and Kanekaratena to take advantage of its magical properties. Petruk follows their lead and uses the amulet’s power to seize the Lojitengara kingdom and proclaim himself king, adopting the nonsensical but deceptively illustrious title Prabu Petruk Belgeduwelbeh Tongtongsot.

He then sets about implementing political reforms, proclaiming Lojitengara a republic, although in name only. This newfound state is a realm in which “freedom” is taken to its limits and almost everything is permitted. In this environment of anomie, the kingdom becomes increasingly chaotic, with hilarious consequences.

Presented to an Indonesian audience who enjoy and suffer from the birthing pains of a more liberal and democratic state on a daily basis, Republik Petruk’s jibes and jokes put its audience in stitches.

As with many political satires, the script employs allusions, a device that is the best way to raise an issue without pointing a finger directly at anyone – which is why such satireoften proves the best method of advancing political arguments in situations in which confrontation is expressly forbidden or frowned upon – as was the case in this country not so very long ago.

Republik Petruk is crowded with such allusions. Though oblique, the references are clear enough for any Indonesian in the know to understand exactly which policy, polly, or pop trend is the target of criticism.

The use of slang, English or even popular phrases from ad slogans, as well as the blending of Harajuku and punk in the costume designs, appeared to be an effort to use a vernacular young people are familiar with while speaking to the present reality, namely the invasion of foreign culture and capital.

Expressions such as “Mana ketehe” (How do I know?), “Mupeng” (short for muka pengen or horny face), “How come?”, “bibeh” (baby), are regularly exchanged during the four-hour drama.
The play does not restrict its humor or comedy to politics only. Anyone and anything can be put on the mocking block.

The opening scnee, with its monologue by Petruk, straightaway ensures the audience gets the point that nobody is above critique in the Republik Petruk, not even the narrator himself.
Budi Ros deserves praise for his superior performance as Petruk, nimbly moving between his two roles as the king and the play’s narrator without losing his comic touch.

It might be hard for some to see the actual relevance of Petruk’s role, unless they understand how the character has migrated from a wayang tale, classic shadow puppet dramas. The script establishes that Petruk is an unlikely king not only because he uses illegitimate power (the Kalimasada amulet) but also because he is just a punakawan, a royal servant whose real role is to entertain princes.

This raises questions about the view of democracy here. After all, in the modern democratic world, doesn’t anybody have the right to become a leader? Why does only one group of people have the right to lead, as represented by the ownership of the amulet? What does the amulet represent in the context of 21st century Indonesian politics? Biting wit: Teater Koma’s latest play Republik Petruk (Petruk’s Republic) delivers a clever political satire. ANTARA/FANNY OCTAVIANUS

The connection to the current situation comes near the end of the play when the Kalimasada amulet transforms into slips of paper that are spread like ticker tape over the cast and audience. Perhaps everyone does have the right to become a leader.

The set design shows the brilliance of those working behind the scenes on this production.
Two famous pictures of Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, the despot Napoleon III with Petruk’s face superimposed, hang in the background – signaling a historical awareness of other times when political satire was key to social critique.

One of the examples of 19th century political satire is an 1864 pamphlet by Maurice Joly, The Dialogue in Hall between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, which attacked that lesser nephew’s political ambitions.

Teater Koma, well regarded for its political satires since it was first set up in 1977, successfully uses the elements of surprise, incongruity, conflict and repetitiveness and the effect of opposite expectations to make the audience laugh.

The use of ironic comedy to portray persons or social institutions as ridiculous or corrupt does not alienate the audience from the object of humor. It makes the audiences laugh while also giving them plenty to think about.

If it is true that the test of a country’s civilization is the flourishing of the comic ideal and comedy, then the test of true comedy is that it inspires thoughtful laughter.

If Aristophanes, the father of comedy, were alive today, he would be laughing aloud when watching Republik Petruk, even if he needed a quick lesson on the country’s
political situation.

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