After three days of tourist focused shows, it was a relief to get to the Thailand Cultural Center in Bangkok for a night of art not designed for the tastes of busloads of bored travelers. Now, if you’re not a regular reader, you might want to skip ahead: the story of how I got to see this performance, which wasn’t advertised anywhere in English, is a tale of its own. I’d read about the Joe Louis puppet company in my slightly dated copy of Frommer’s Thailand, which said they no longer had a permanent home and recommended I go to the website. Thus began a wild goose chase, from the outdated, Thai only website to a hotel travel agent who suggested I go to the restaurant where they perform and ask there (it’s the restaurant in front of the Asiatique Calypso/Muai Thai performance/shopping complex); there I was told they were not back until the week after I left but were instead performing at the Thailand Cultural Center (not mentioned in my guidebook at all!) which had a big website that unfortunately only had two pages of English language information – from 2013. I had two days left that I could go – would it work?
Well, things were looking down because when I got someone to actually call (a difficult trick finding the number since they appear to have carefully avoided being findable on Google – may I suggest you look into search engine optimization?), it turned out they were only going to be there on the Friday (at 7:15) and not the Saturday due to some big holiday celebration I was of course unaware of. Nail in the coffin: the tickets, which were free, had all been allocated. It appeared that fate was against my going: I’d successfully found their new home and been denied, and then even found their temporary space and also been denied.
Well, if you know me, just being sold out isn’t reason enough to keep me from a show I really want to go to. There was nothing to be done about getting tickets online (everything was in Thai so I couldn’t even see if there was availability), I’d been shut down on the phone (mind you as I don’t speak Thai I wasn’t able to follow up), so I decided to try my old standby of just going to the venue and just seeing if a spare ticket showed up. See, my experience for free shows (especially) has been that when people don’t have to spend money, they frequently decide not to show up, so maybe there was hope. I do really, really like puppets, and I was by myself so there was no one else to irritate if I failed.
So … the night of, I found my way to the center (not particularly well signed from the five way intersection – despite having its own tube stop it was still a challenge actually getting there), blazed up to the people giving out tickets, and bang – I was in like Flynn. In fact, about 20% of the seats weren’t taken, and there was a balcony that was completely empty. The audience (600 or more) seemed to be rather a lot of Chinese people (I was sit next to a group of four) and of course lots of children. The stage was huge – forty or fifty feet across, bigger than most London houses – and on the left side was a 15 person music ensemble, the kind with xylophones and such that sounds like Gamelan music to me (I don’t know the Thai name for this collection of instruments – there were also three singers and a guy playing what I think was a leaf, held between the lips and buzzed). To the right was a Buddha altar, surmounted by three masks – one of Hanuman, one of Ganesha, and the other of Ram. The performers – about 20 black clad men and woman – came out and kowtowed to the altar right after we all stood for the Thai national anthem. I was definitely NOT in London. And that was good.
To my great and grand surprise, there was also, at the right side of the stage, a free-standing screen, which meant … supertitles! Hurray! And so I was able to follow along with “The Story of the Lunar Eclipse,” this evening’s presentation, which was the retelling of a myth about the origin of lunar eclipses that pulled from the Ramayana (or, in Thai, the Ramakien). The framing device was that Hanuman was chasing a pretty lady through the woods, trying to seduce her, but the moon slowly went dark … and this happens because (condensing 80 minutes of back story) a long time ago, the moon betrayed a demon shortly after it had drunk water of eternal life, causing the demon to become immortal – only to be sliced in two (“by a crystal chakra”) by said god. So the demon punishes the moon by eating him whenever he can find him.
The set for this show was beautiful and simple, relying occasionally on shadow projections on the backdrop, the foreground containing generally very little. Sometimes the performers held clouds; there was also a large lump representing a mountain. After my visit to Angkor Wat, I was feeling very on top of the ancient legend of the world being conjured by a sea of milk being churned by demons and gods playing tug of war with a giant snake (naga), and here I saw the statues of the temples brought to life, with piles of additional details added. The naga was fantastic, like a Chinese dragon (carried by many) only with nine heads and the fantastic ability to shoot steam out of its mouth. And, of course, with puppets, you have no problem adding characters in with multiple heads and arms, and having them be sliced in half and then carry on acting.
I was really impressed by the detail and beauty of the puppets. Their hands were frequently curved in a gesture that brought to mind Asparas; but they also did a good job holding swords. Interestingly, the three puppeteers assigned each puppet echoed both the facial expressions and the movement of the puppets, so that if a puppet was stomping or dancing, the puppeteers also did this – but in perfect unison. The level of skill was very, very high. And the performers did more than just work the meter high puppets; for a big fight scene, they came out and performed as people in full Thai dance regalia. This, plus the live music, and the use of shadow puppets for the scene of the demon chasing the moon (and for the moon eclipsing) really just marked this troupe out as one of the best performance puppet groups I have ever had the pleasure to see. War Horse is what it is, but it’s a play (that’s become too cheap to bother with live music last I heard); this was an extravaganza of world class performers. And I got to see it for free.
I can’t say what exactly the Joe Louis puppet group does at its standard dinner performance, but they’re really amazing, if perhaps not at a level most kids would really enjoy. If you ever have a chance to see them, you absolutely must go, especially if you can see a performance that’s all them and without any dinner distraction – on a full stage with 90 minutes of show, it was great. And thank you for whoever sponsored this performance; yes, I bought the t-shirt.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, January 9, 2015.)