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Visible Religion

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VISIBLE RELIGION

at Steppenwolf Studio Theatre, September 29-October 2

I'm of two minds about Visible Religion, a piece that marries the work of American and Indonesian musicians, puppeteers, and other artists. Like any good child of liberal, middle-class parents, I'm anxious to show I'm open to diversity and new cultural experiences. And a primarily visual and musical experience--in this case an Indonesian shadow puppet play with music played by the nine-member Gamelan Pacifica--is almost sure to appeal to the child-of-the-TV-era in me.

But though the melodic, trance-inducing music of the gamelan was beautiful and moving in small doses, I have to admit I'd pretty much had my fill long before the show ended. And I'm afraid I felt the same way about the puppet play. For a while it was interesting to watch the shadows the intricately designed puppets cast on a long sheet. But the effect grew tiresome. Though manipulated by master puppeteers--Sri Djoko Rahardja, from Java, and I Made Sidia, from Bali--the puppets aren't that expressive. Basically you can do three things with them: move them forward, move them up and down, or make them grow larger or smaller by changing the distance between them and the light source. To a child raised on films filled with explosions, claymation, and intricate camera movements, the sight of three puppets bouncing up and down to indicate movement over large distances is underwhelming.

John Boesche's photographic images of clouds and mountains and the flames of hell projected onto the screen were clearly meant to break up this visual boredom. And they did, for a time. But ultimately there was nothing he or the puppeteers or the composers--Tonny Prabowo and Jarrad Powell, who wrote some beautiful songs for the gamelan--could do to make the story seem worth two hours.

Adapted from the Mahabharata, Visible Religion focuses on Bhima, the dumb jock brother of the mythic Pandavas, the five semidivine brothers at the center of the Indian epic. For Westerners with even a passing interest in Hindu religion the best known of the Pandavas is probably Arjuna, Krishna's little buddy and the central figure in the most famous section of the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita, available wherever Hare Krishnas chant.

Visible Religion focuses on a minor tale, Bhima's journey to end a curse put on his father by a priest he accidentally killed on a hunting trip. The plot breathlessly summarized in the program is considerably more moving and exciting than the sluggish story that unfolds on the screen, however. For example, the scene near the end of the first act when two puppets are bashed together several times is described in the program as "Yama's face turns black with rage, steam pours from his ears as he attacks Bhima. But Bhima grips the god's throat so tightly that Yama gasps, terrified, begging for mercy."

How faithful Sidia, Rharadja, et al are to the story in the Mahabharata I can't tell. Press materials mention Dante's Divine Comedy as another source, and certainly the hell shown, with its flames and devils, is very Christian. Boesche also tosses in a slide of the medieval European Ptolemaic view of the universe printed in many English editions of Dante's works--earth in the center, and at its center hell.

This medieval Christian concept of the universe and of the destiny of all mortals--to die and go to either heaven or hell--is emblematic of the major problem I have with this show. I don't know if Visible Religion is meant to be an authentic re-creation of Balinese and Javanese shadow puppetry or a modernized, homogenized production for an American audience.

If it's meant to be authentic, why couple such incompatible ideas as reincarnation and eternal reward or punishment? If it's meant to be a successful hybrid of contemporary and traditional music theater and puppetry, why do the contemporary elements feel only like sugar coating? With a foot in each camp, Visible Religion is considerably less satisfying than it might have been.

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