A circus with a higher purpose

Wayang Golek brings Javanese puppetry to Bainbridge.

Kathy Foley likens Wayang Golek to a circus, with a higher purpose.

“It’s a very big, enormous performance system that has music, dance, philosophy, religion, culture, and materials from all over the world,” she said.

Foley, professor of theater arts at the University of California at Santa Cruz, will bring her West Javanese puppet theater to Bainbridge next week for a series of student and community performances of “The Ghostly Goddess and the Sinner Saint.”

The show, she hopes, will showcase the expansive mechanical wonder of rod puppetry, and perhaps impart a little enlightenment in the process.

“Wayang golek” refers to both the medium of rod puppetry and the puppets themselves, which include painted and costumed gods, clowns, heroes and ogres.

Their “performance” is usually accompanied by a music ensemble, called a gamelan, as well as drumming and traditional Sundanese dance. Foley will be accompanied by dancer Tikka Sears of the University of Washington, Jarrad Powell leading the Gamelan Pacifica and Undang Sumarna on drums.

“The Ghostly Goddess” offers a fitting educational framework because even as it tells the story of a Javanese prince who converted the island to Islam, it also depicts the creation of Indonesian puppetry itself. In this way, it shows art to be a unifying force.

The theme of convergence runs through the staging as well as the story. As Sears describes it, one of the ways in which Wayang Golek differs from many American theater forms is that the dancer, who performs in glittering costumes and colorful masks, mimics the puppets’ characters. Her presence helps bridge a gap between the puppet world and the human one.

Sears was a theater student of Foley’s at U.C. Santa Cruz, where she said one of the instructor’s most compelling techniques was to stage dance dramas that turned her students into live puppets whose stories she narrated and whose movements and actions she directed.

“The puppet master is really in control of most of the aspects of the performance,” Foley said. “It’s very much like a one-person performance of Shakespeare. You have a wide variety of literature and philosophy concepts...(and) you have a structural form that you follow, which is the wayang ‘thing.’”

As Foley operates the rod puppets – often 20 to 30 during the course of a story, sometimes arranged together in elaborate court or battle scenes – she’s visually cueing the music and the dancers. And sometimes, if she knows a second school group is outside the door waiting to come in to a performance, she has to fudge a little.

In addition to student and community performances this coming week, Sears and Foley will be leading workshops with area school groups as part of the Bainbridge Island Arts Education Community Consortium’s “Humanizing Islam” series, a partner program with the UW Southeast Asia Center.

Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world, deeply integrates the performing arts into its practice of Islam, and one of the hero’s primary discoveries in “The Ghostly Goddess” is that all religions – Buddhism, animism, Islam, Hinduism, take your pick – have similar wisdom to convey.

“All of those spiritualities are truth, they’re really after the same thing,” Foley said. “When you are not trying to corral people into hating each other and saying they’re wrong and I’m right, you see that you are really striving for the same kind of truth, beauty and unity. This is the major idea behind Wayang and the traditional idea behind Islam within an Indonesian framework.”



Wayang Golek puppet theatre and dance of Southeast Asia/West Java will perform “The Ghostly Goddess and the Sinner Saint” at 7:30 p.m. March 21 at Bainbridge Performing Arts, 842-5639. The show features Gamelan Pacifica led by Jarrad Powell, puppet master Kathy Foley, drummer Undang Sumarna and dancer Tikka Sears Student performances will be held March 19 and 21. See

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