Celebrate Purim with a Spiel that shows what happens in the shadows
Bringing together this month’s Purim Spectacular at the Mandell Jewish Community Center in West Hartford means bringing together pieces from as far away as Central Java and New Zealand and as close as New York and Storrs for a show of shadow theater rooted in Indonesian tradition but with a Chicago twist.
Matthew Isaac Cohen, professor of drama at UConn, and a group of puppetry arts students at UConn put their stamps on a revival of Barbara Benary’s 2001 show “Wayang Esther: A Javanese Purimspiel “, which they will present on March 12 and 13 at the JCC.
In curating the show, conceived last year when a West Hartford community member linked to UConn came up with a puppet play for Purim, Cohen says organizers turned to Benary’s work which portrays a satirical vision feminist and anti-war story of Queen Esther.
The biblical text is usually read during the holiday of Purim to acknowledge Esther’s role in rescuing the Jews from execution at the hands of Haman, who ordered their death, and to celebrate their survival. The party is designed as a carnival celebration with food and drink, plus a spiel or play, to pass the story on to the next generation.
Both Benary and Cohen use Indonesian wayang form of shadow puppets to tell the story. Also from Benary’s show, Cohen collaborated with New York percussion group Gamelan Son of Lion for music performed using gamelan instruments made by Benary and based on traditional Indonesian designs.
Puppeteer Ki Joko Susilo, who worked with Benary on her show, was commissioned to create new puppets for UConn’s version and worked with Storrs students from her home in New Zealand via Zoom to teach them their construction, which was carried out in Central Java, Cohen said. The students then spent the first part of the spring semester building replicas – all of them, replicas and originals, are based on an 18th-century Italian megillah, or scroll, which tells the story.
“Our new version of the spiel incorporates most but not all of the original songs written for ‘Wayang Esther’, but has a very different type of dramaturgy,” Cohen said. “In the original production, the singers, who weren’t the puppeteers, voiced all the characters and did all the singing. It wasn’t going to be practical from our perspective because we were rehearsing in different locations, with Son of Lion in New York and the rest of the show in Storrs, so the dialogue was transferred to me as the lead puppeteer.
Additionally, he says, the librettos have been revised to adopt a Balinese style of performance, meaning the main characters will speak Biblical Hebrew and a group of clowns will perform for the audience. To create shadows, Cohen says the puppets will be held against a wayang screen lit from behind to cast their shadows to the other side.
The influence of Chicago comes from the way the performance will be carried out.
Cohen reversed the usual stage setup, putting the puppeteers in front and showing off their work and the bright colors of the puppets themselves. Lighting and projection designer Nicole Lang of Yale University will digitally capture the shadow images and project them in edited form live using a film projector on the back wall.
“It’s a style of shadow theater that was popularized by a Chicago-based group, Manual Cinema. You can choose to watch how things are done from the puppeteer side, or you can watch the finished product that is projected,” he says.
To generate interest and connect with community members before the show, Cohen and Matthew B. Sorensen ’22 MFA organized a pre-show exhibit at the JCC, including the UConn puppet replicas, a reproduction of the roll of Esther, other puppets from Java, early sketches used in this performance, and the music for “Wayang Esther” from 2001.
“It has been very good to prepare the community for the production. They are able to see and interact with elements of it,” says Cohen. “Most importantly, JCC preschoolers can touch the puppets and have a dialogue between King Ahasuerus and Queen Esther. They can see how the puppets are on the screen and they can walk around the back and see the shadows. The puppets will also be taken away so children can interact with them in their own classrooms.
Because Esther’s story ends with the murder of Haman, his sons and other gory episodes, Cohen says the March 12 performance at 8 p.m. is adults-only and will feature the full story and have a time of lamentation and repentance even though Purim is usually a time of celebration.
The family-centric show on March 13 at 2 p.m. will not include the more brutal events or philosophical reflection, Cohen says. Instead, it will start with a march of costumed children to honor Mordechai with a parade and there will be a family singing at the end.
To purchase tickets for “Wayang Esther: A Contemporary Account of the Book of Esther,” visit the Mandell Jewish Community Center website. The pre-show exhibition is in progress.