‘Age of Bones: Zaman Belulang’ Review: A Play with No Compass

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My bizarrely riveting 90-minute experience of witnessing Sandra Thibodeaux’s “Age of Bones: Zaman Belulang” at Aula PSBJ Fakultas Ilmu Budaya Universitas Padjadjaran on October 12, was this week’s real page-turner. It was bizarre because it felt like being in the same world with Nemo’s only without coral reefs or resplendent cerulean backdrop, yet it was riveting because I was not in it. In fact, in the fearless hands of Alex Galeazzi (Griffin Theater Company) and Iswadi Pratama (Teater Satu Lampung), taking charge on director’s seats, the bilingual play injects a fresh spectrum of exotic colors almost effortlessly in terms of “in-between-ness”. Let alone the intermediary use of both English and Bahasa for the script, mindfully executed by Kadek Krishna Adidharma, conveying tone of foreignness to the spectators and furthering the level of indeterminacy. Conducted by Department of English, Department of Literature and Cultural Studies FIB UNPAD, and Teater Satu Lampung, “Age of Bones” swiftly registers to be an A-list tragedy for self-cure in encountering such issues as, out of many others, child abuse and human exploitation.

Recounted by an alleged septuagenarian narrator claimed as Pak Tua or the “walker”, the play mostly takes place under the sea, far beneath the two waters separating Indonesia from Australia. Its story orbits around Yakub, or more ubiquitously-known as Ikan, who, detached from his “rocked” sailing boat, yearns to return up home while befriending a ferocious transcontinental shark simply for a late night chit-chat. Meanwhile, at home, his parents are perplexed waiting for his youthful son to be back in their arms, gradually losing their appetite, sight and “tongue,” as it happens to the father. As the story progresses, Ikan meets two Australian divers who abduct him and escort him to the country of kangaroo for labor. Discovering that he has been victimized, a lovely but bad-mouthed Australienne, who presently becomes his lawyer, advocates him to court for being trafficked. Well, I might miss few steps in-between, but that was pretty much it.

In regards of such storyline, a qualified ensemble of cast must surely be of concern. I must first then acknowledge the humorously “intrusive” dalang (the puppeteer in traditional shadow plays) called himself Dalang, rendered by the earthly charming Made Sidia (Institut Seni Indonesia Denpasar), who holds paramount part for the plot. His portrayal, indeed, bequeaths a certain complexity to the play’s donnée while he performs both on- and off-stage. (Well, it sounds wrong to say “off-stage” because he is actually on the stage, only unseen). Furthermore, the actors playing Ibu and Bapak might too be the spectator’s favorite. Their display of affection and intimacy in the beginning creates a quite enviably mellifluous chemistry but later fizzles as the story entangles, conceiving instead an inevitable pathos toward them. The hoary yet resilient Pak Tua also makes room in the audience’s heart, being the plenipotentiary figure but still partakes in the spur of acerbically comical moments with either Dalang or the bric-á-brac narratees. Being old, often does he lose track of what he intends to say, thus enabling Dalang to correct his sentences although it might turn out off beam.

All these characters were assembled upon a countrified proscenium stage with a modest luncheonette, preceded by a quadrangular verandah on the right-hand side, across which placed a carton-made sailing boat craft in front of a booth with a triangle-cut projecting screen where Dalang operates his puppets. Thanks to Mic Gruchy for his picturesque montages, exacerbating the mood of each scene where it could otherwise have gone monotonous. Let’s say Ikan’s wave-hit boat scene where the rustled stormy sea filled the screen, supported by attributive narratees wobbling their green quartos in the air. What a feast for the eye! This is yet to mention the exquisite touch of sound effects impeccably managed by Panos Couros. A scene where Dalang took off the whale puppet to assure Pak Tua that it would no longer disturb his flow of reciting, was surely one to giggle about, as the sound of a whale echoed in the background.

However, much of the musical involvement in the play does not hinge on Couros’ input alone, an acapella of sopranos and occasionally the thumps of rebana, creating a suspenseful, sometimes ambient, tone for certain scenes, also retain key roles for the play’s build-ups. With reference to suspense-builder, a final court scene where an octopus playing as Judge and a dolphin as Lawyer, was just the cherry on top. No spectator I assume would expect that one coming after the appearance of Shark, performed by the same actor as Judge (though it’s a bummer I forgot his name on the finale call out). None the less, his attempt for such infectiously catchy ‘judgy’ accent was in fact what made him to be most remembered, which prompted me to directly associate him with Charles Laughton from Witness for the Prosecution. Ha! I know, right? Anyway, Imas Sobariah, the costume designer, has for sure made all this preparatory, and it was much learnt by heart.

Overall, I have mentioned “in-between” and indeterminacy earlier, but what is the real deelio here? What exactly, if should be exact, does the title “Age of Bones” have to do with the storyline of a “humane fish” missing to be back home? By the time I left the hall, the first thing that came across me is Seno Gumira Ajidarma’s exemplary Kitab Omong Kosong (Book of Nonsense), in which Satya and Maneka set off to find Walmiki, the God-like figure who “writes” down the story as the novel progresses. One thing to highlight here is both Satya and Maneka are highly aware of the fact that their fate is being determined by Walmiki, unlike Ikan, or any other character. The other is that Walmiki is described far-off from the rest of the characters as well as the reader, creating a sense of him as a supreme being. But Dalang, the Walmiki figure in the play, would not be considered supreme whatsoever. He is still able to laugh, mock Pak Tua when sounded lost in his recital or sentences, and even interact with the spectators in the denouement of the play. Simply put, he is a completely mundane figure, which links to the next thing I had in mind: human error.

“We are going round and round with no sense of direction,” as echoed by Lawyer, on the subject of the Australian government’s ignorance to take Ikan’s case seriously, was crucial in the midst of child-trafficking issue happening in the status quo. She went on to say that she and Ikan were like being in a “ship with no compass,” somewhat pinpointing that the idea of his abduction for foreign labor stems from the bestiality of the capitalist’s nature, and that the whole “mess” was the very cause of depravity of self-respect for one another. (Well, now we know why is she “bad-mouthed”, huh?) For what it costs, the metaphoric Dalang figure, being, say, the operator of the whole play, pretty much sums up the fact that human’s present actions are the core of what the future may bring. However, he sees this in a rather witty and sarcastic, if not disrespectful, point of view that human’s conscious unawareness of problems he himself conceives, is a thing to simply laugh at. All in all, “Age of Bones: Zaman Belulang” shall be a palpable reminder, through a body of signs stashed at its entirety, that people, in the era of capitalization, cease to see others as human beings, as those with souls and feelings, but instead as machines, with only bones to work, earn money, and perpetuate foreign capitalistic ideals.

In the end, the play suggests that we need a “kompas moral” (moral compass), as much as it needs a compass to direct the characters, together with spectators, away from the dark and cold world of “down under.”

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