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Ayu Utami's Shakuntala: Sensual Sensibility

Naomi Srikandi performs Shakuntala at the Indonesian French Institute (Lembaga Indonesia Prancis, LIP) in YogyakartaKadek Krishna Adidharma, Yogyakarta
The Jakarta Post, Features - May 26, 2007

Shakuntala, the enigma who has enthralled audiences around the globe, has been given new life. Previously, creator Ayu Utami had retold Shakuntala's story when reading excerpts from her novels Saman and Larung. Actors in London and Singapore have performed a translation crafted by Ayu into dialog form. And on May 18 and May 19, Naomi Srikandi fleshed out the character on stage in Shakuntala, held at the Indonesian-French Institute (LIP) in Yogyakarta.

One of the foursome of girlfriends who link the acclaimed novels Saman and Larung, Shakuntala is shrouded by writer Ayu's magical realism that allows for multiple interpretations. Actress Naomi's exploration often uses the voice of the child Shakuntala. This clue provides contexts that bring the character closer to the realm of mere mortals.

Shakuntala is a sexually fluctuating, multitalented dancer and performer whose role as narrator is delightful for her witty, flagrant naivete. Her tales are fantastical, and told in the banal tone of a child talking to herself, it blends illusion with reality.

Beneath the surface is the self-willed delusion of a mind forced to find refuge within; a delusion that gives birth to fictions of half-truths so necessary for expression that it breaks out in dance: the body regaining autonomy.

Naomi Srikandi Performs Shakuntala at the Indonesian French Institute (Lembaga Indonesia Prancis, LIP) YogyakartaThe opening line was delivered from a picture-perfect pose: Naomi clad in white lying upon a blue sofa, writhing sensuously to emphasize her curves. Her body was splayed diagonally in a declaration of independence; her face deadpan in delivery, suspended upside-down inches from the floor.

"My name is Shakuntala."

Despite a weak voice due to the difficult pose, such is the power of the words crafted by Ayu that shivers still run up one's spine upon hearing Shakuntala speak of her alienation from her father. She is a survivor of emotional abuse who has taken refuge in her body.

"For me, life is dancing. And dancing, first and foremost, is about the body. As God only blows life on the fortieth day after egg and sperm have become a mass in the womb, thus is the soul indebted to the body," says Shakuntala.

The performance improves as Naomi begins to explore the wintry landscape of the stage in New York, where Shakuntala finds acclaim as a dancer.

Her mindscape, however, has elements of quaint Java. The monologue, spoken by a Shakuntala adept at changing her voice, is lyrical, haunting and amusing all at once.

"Ayu Utami's use of language is so compelling," said Naomi, "that exploration into linguistic sensibility became the biggest emphasis in this project."

This production is one of the 9 Solo Projects of Yogyakarta's Teater Garasi drama group, an effort to explore actor autonomy and return control of stage performances to the actor. While the projects take the monologue form, none of the nine performances in the series is performed solo, and the lead actors are supported by teams of technicians, musicians and supporting actors.

For Naomi, project has been an eye-opener in "coming to a full realization that the situation that allows me to have this experience [as an actress] is often created by others".

Four musicians and three supporting actresses backed Naomi's multimedia stage performance, which included projections of video footage showing a fairy-tale mindscape as well as a playful interlude into a reality TV show.

Comic relief was provided in a tight-nit, fast-paced dialog with two guest actresses lounging on the sofa bed.

The show sold out two nights in a row to a mostly under-40 crowd. For many, this was their first theater experience. These "newbies" were either fans of the band providing musical accompaniment or of Ayu Utami, and could not resist the combined attraction.

Overall, it was a coup for actress-director Naomi. The audience exiting the theater commented on the excellent value of the show.

The crowd was not only ecstatic about the Rp 10,000 entry to a fascinating world of contemporary theater, but also about being a part of a joint exploration into the fascinating character of Shakuntala.

"This is still a work in progress," admitted Naomi. In the eight months' preparation for the show, the actress emphasized her exploration of the themes raised by the text, as well as the creative collaboration.

Artist Titarubi created a versatile stage, Airport Radio the sound design, and all fell into place with lighting and projection tricks.

Naomi Srkandi performs Shakuntala at LIP Yogyakarta

The focus on linguistic sensibility is evident in the performance, with instances of apt phrasing and tonal control delighting and giving insight to this daring persona.

A consciousness of physical acting, however, is yet to be fully explored. In the tear-jerking closing scene of the tango seduction, it was evident that the otherwise accomplished actress had yet to take dance lessons.

While her mind seeks refuge from emotional abuse as a child, Shakuntala is liberated by her body; dancing is her truth, and so must be explored to the fullest.

But it must be noted that, as a work in progress, Naomi has attained remarkable success with her directorial debut.

"We plan to come together again to rework this piece over another two to three months," said Naomi in side-stepping a question on a future tour of the performance.

In the meantime, bookings for shows in Jakarta and Solo are already trickling in, so perhaps there's time for those tango lessons after all.


Shakuntala was one of 9 Solo Projects of Teater Garasi


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Last updated Saturday 2 June 2007 at 12:05 PM (+8 GMT)

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