Mwathirika: Not Your Average Puppet Show

General consensus is that puppet shows are aimed toward children, for various reasons. Sometimes to entertain, sometimes to teach, sometimes to just hold attention long enough for parents to breath. As far as Papermoon Puppet Theatre is concerned, general consensus has it all wrong.

Photo credit to Shanna Gibbs

A featured guest of the Asia Society as part of Center Stage, Papermoon Puppet Theatre performed at the Upper East Side museum last week and demonstrated that kid-only puppet shows are a thing of the past.

Papermoon’s sophisticated puppet show, Mwathirika, brings to life a story of mass murder and widespread loss through the near-silent tales of two families in Indonesia in 1965. Derived from personal experience with the attempted coup against Indonesian president SukarnoMwathirika depicts the turn of events two families experience during the retaliation brought on by this attempt.

Though the show is set in Indonesia, Mwathrikia is the Swahili word for “victim.” According to the Asia Society, Papermoon chose this title for their story in order to combat the notion that political devastation is endemic and remind us that it can affect a variety of areas and demographics. With an aim to focus on the emotional aspects of the gruesome events surrounding the attempted coup, Papermoon effectively reminds viewers that human beings, often innocent, are the casualties of political discord.

In addition to the powerful message behind this production, a plethora of other artistic characteristics demand respect and appreciation. Though the ultimate message is relatively simple to grasp, the small intricacies of the show are what set it apart from the average hidden-lesson puppet event. Maria Tri Sulistyani and Iwan Effendi, artistic directors for Papermoon, have utilized various subtle details to add layers to and evoke emotion with their creation. The most notable of these is the use of whistles among the members of the primary family in the story. Throughout the show, the children in the family use red whistles to call for help from each other. What in the beginning appears to be a mere character quirk proves to be one of the most significant, defining symbols of the entire play.

Perhaps one of the most amazing aspects of Mwathirika is the skill and finesse on the part of each puppeteer. For most Americans, the term “puppet show” conjures up the memory of hand puppets set in a small stage lacking any real props or three-dimensional scenery. This is not the way Papermoon Puppet Theatre operates. Each puppet throughout the show is handled by its own puppeteer, all clearly well-trained and thoroughly practiced in the art of becoming one with their puppets. Though initial focus may be drawn to the workings of the puppets, from the composition of their limbs to the tiny hooks below their feet to facilitate movement, it takes the Papermoon crew a minimal amount of time to obliterate all concern for these details and command attention to the lively characters and their plight. Papermoon’s puppeteers need no words and minimal sound to communicate the emotions of their characters, and with an exemplary musical accompaniment and the intensity of the storyline itself, this is almost enough to make a grown woman cry.

Photo credit to Shanna Gibbs

As a twenty-six-year-old New Yorker, a puppet show isn’t always the most appealing choice for the night’s events, but in the case of Papermoon Puppet Theatre’s Mwathirika, it was the best. Sure to invoke thoughts deeper than what to mix with vodka for the night and certain to awaken the history nerd in all of us, Mwathirika is a cultural statement not to be underestimated and in this day and age, a message not to be left unheard.

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